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Armed with barriers made of human hair, Venezuelans take on massive oil slicks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Following its worst economic meltdown in history, Venezuela is trying to revive its beleaguered oil industry. But as John Otis reports, ramping up oil production in Venezuela is causing more oil spills.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For petroleum.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here on the shores of Lake Maracaibo in northwest Venezuela, workers use rakes and shovels to pull blobs of congealed oil out of the water. The oil sticks to everything - fishing nets, boats, outboard motors and animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALF MOOING)

OTIS: That's the sound of a little calf that's just covered in black petroleum. It's trying to lick the oil off its body.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The oil slicks are the result of constant leaks from underwater oil wells and a spaghetti of aging pipelines that run along the lake bottom. The black, sticky goo has driven away beachgoers and decimated the fishing industry.

JOSEIRY GOTERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Joseiry Gotera, who manages a fishing cooperative here, used to send out 25 boats per day to catch fish, shrimp and crab on Lake Maracaibo, a brackish tidal bay connected to the Caribbean Sea. Now, catches are so small that she sends out just two daily fishing boats.

GOTERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Some days, she says, "the fish come back all covered in oil."

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES WASHING ASHORE)

OTIS: Lake Maracaibo used to be ground zero for Venezuela's oil industry. The country's first major oil well was drilled here in 1914 and hundreds more followed. But over the past decade, mismanagement and corruption within the state oil company, known as PDVSA, caused oil production to plummet. As Venezuela's economy collapsed, PDVSA cut back on maintenance and supervision.

FRANCISCO MONALDI: The facilities that are in the hands of PDVSA are in terrible, terrible shape.

OTIS: That's Francisco Monaldi, who runs the Latin America Energy Program at Rice University in Houston.

MONALDI: I talk to service contractors that told me that things that were supposed to be done, say, every two years, had not been done for eight years.

OTIS: Although still weak, Venezuela's economy has stabilized, and oil production is now bouncing back. The country has a huge incentive to increase output because in October, Washington lifted oil sanctions against the country. That will allow Venezuela to resume exporting to the U.S. rather than selling its oil on the black market at steep discounts. But as the petroleum industry retools, experts say Venezuela's devastated oil facilities can't handle the larger volumes of petroleum, especially on Lake Maracaibo.

JESUS URBINA: Every single day we have an oil spill - not only one, but three, four, five.

OTIS: That's Jesus Urbina, who works for the anti-corruption group Transparency International. He says decaying derricks and other machinery are actually tipping over into the water.

URBINA: The pumping stations, they are sinking.

OTIS: They're sinking into Lake Maracaibo?

URBINA: It's an immense wreck of oil installations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: During a recent tour of the lake, Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's autocratic president, pledged to fix these problems. So far, there's been little sign of government action. But volunteers are trying to pick up the slack. They're collecting hair from newly-shorn clients at barbershops. The hair, which is highly absorbent, is then turned into biodegradable floating barriers to soak up oil spills on the lake.

SELENE ESTRACH: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: It's a small step, but Selene Estrach, leader of the project, says she's trying to get average citizens involved in the cleanup. For now, most people try to avoid its tainted waters.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP OF CHILDREN: (Speaking Spanish, laughing).

OTIS: In the lakeside community of Santa Rosa, lots of youngsters are playing soccer, but hardly anyone is swimming.

DANI ORTEGA: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: The degradation of the lake prompted Dani Ortega, a Santa Rosa artist, to compose a song which ends on a grim note.

ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "No more contamination," he beseeches. "They are killing off the lake."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis on Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD LACY'S "DESOLATE BEAUTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Otis