Oil and gas blocks in the western Amazon in 2008. Solid yellow indicates blocks already leased out to companies. Hashed yellow indicates proposed blocks or blocks still in the negotiation phase. Peru's Amazon rainforest is extensively contaminated from decades of oil and gas drilling. Graphic: Matt Finer, Clinton Jenkins, and Bill Powers / LiveScience.com

By Becky Oskin, Senior Writer
14 June 2014

SACRAMENTO, California (LiveScience.com) – Peru's Amazon rainforest is extensively contaminated from decades of oil and gas drilling, researchers reported yesterday (June 12) here at the annual Goldschmidt geochemistry conference.

In the past decade, volatile demonstrations by indigenous groups and tangled lawsuits against oil companies have exposed the toxic legacy of decades of oil drilling in the Western Amazon. People living in the rainforest say they are suffering health effects from the nearby polluted drilling and waste sites, and from eating plants and wildlife laced with heavy metals and petroleum compounds.

But lax government regulations during the early years of oil exploration, combined with a lack of environmental monitoring, mean there's little data on the true extent of contamination in the richly diverse rainforest.

"I was surprised by how little has been published," said study co-author Antoni Rosell-Melé, an environmental chemist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain.

Now, using publicly available water sampling data, Rosell-Melé and his colleagues have built a comprehensive database of contamination levels during the past 30 years in Peru's remote rainforest. The team plans to publish the database so other scientists can use the data to better understand how oil exploration affects the Amazon rainforest. [See Stunning Photos of the Amazon Rainforest]

"We know a lot about the impacts of deforestation, but very little has been published about the impacts of oil exploration," Rosell-Melé said.

The results confirm the complaints from indigenous and green groups: Pollutant levels exceed government and international standards, the researchers said.

"When we extract oil, it has a very high price for the environment, and sometimes, it's not paid by those who use the oil," Rosell-Melé said.

The data comes from Peruvian public agencies, oil companies and non-governmental organizations, but has never been collected in one place. The database contains 4,480 samples from 10 major rivers, taken between 1983 and 2013.

Nearly 70 percent of the river water samples exceed Peru's limits for lead, and 20 percent exceed cadmium limits, Rosell-Melé said. "There's clearly been impacts from discharge into the rivers," he said. [more]

Oil Drilling Contaminated Western Amazon Rainforest, Study Confirms

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