Brazilian authorities investigating a mysterious oil spill that's forced the closure of hundreds of beaches along a 1,300-mile stretch of the country’s coastline reportedly are now pointing their fingers at a Greek-flagged ship.
The Bouboulina, which departed Venezuela in mid-July, is believed to be the source of the 2,000 tons of crude oil that has appeared in the waters off Brazil’s northeast coast, hurting fishing and tourism businesses and killing marine life. Brazilian authorities discovered the spill in early September and raided two offices in Rio de Janeiro on Friday in connection to the arrival of the peculiar black mass: a maritime agency that previously represented Delta Tankers Ltd. – the Greek-flagged ship’s owners -- and the office of a crisis management consultancy, according to the Associated Press.
“There is strong evidence that the company, the captain and the vessel’s crew failed to communicate to authorities about the oil spill/release of the crude oil in the Atlantic Ocean,” Brazilian prosecutors said in a statement obtained by Reuters.
In a search order described Friday by The Associated Press, prosecutors also said "there is no indication of another boat" that could have discharged the Venezuelan crude into the sea.
But Delta Tankers Ltd. is pushing back against that claim, saying it has investigated the ship’s cameras and sensors and found no indications of any wrongdoing.
“There is no proof of the vessel having stopped, conducted any kind of STS operation (Ship to Ship), oil leaked/spilled, slowed down or veered off course, on its passage from Venezuela to Melaka, Malaysia,” the company said in a statement. “This material will be willingly shared with Brazilian authorities, should they contact the company [during] this investigation. So far, no such contact has been made.”
The Bouboulina, named for a 19th-century heroine of Greece's war for independence, docked in Venezuela July 15 and departed three days later for Malaysia, according to the Brazilian search order. The ship left port with 1 million barrels of crude, which Brazilian state-run oil company Petrobras says came from three fields in Venezuela.
Shortly after its departure, the ship sailed past the northeast corner of Brazil en route to Cape Town, South Africa and the Malacca coast of Malaysia, according to Kpler, a company that tracks seaborne commodities.
The Brazilian Navy, citing an analysis of maritime traffic, also said the ship passed through the region where the spill appeared.
Then on Sept. 3, off the coast of Malaysia, the vessel turned off its transponder signal for 10 days as it unloaded cargo, likely via a ship-to-ship transfer to an unknown vessel or vessels, Kpler added.
Ships are required to emit transponder signals, but sea captains dealing in Venezuelan crude are increasingly turning off the safety device to help evade U.S. sanctions that prohibit companies from buying crude from Venezuela, according to the Associated Press.
The ship, as of Monday morning, was sailing off the coast of South Africa after departing a port in Nigeria, according to MarineTraffic.com.
The ship was once held in the U.S. for four days due to problems "in the system to separate water and oil for discharge into the ocean," Brazil's Navy said in a statement, without elaborating.
Crews working to clean up the spill so far have removed 2,000 tons of crude oil across nine Brazilian states, Reuters reported. The country’s solicitor general, it added, says Brazil plans to seek damages for lost tourism and devastation to fishing communities.
The spill is estimated to have hit at least 286 beaches.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.