Brazil prosecutors demand government plan for oil spill

MARCELO SILVA DE SOUSA
CORRECTS DATE - In this Oct. 7, 2019 handout photo released by the Aracaju Municipal Press Office, workers remove oil from Viral Beach, in Aracaju, Brazil. The oil that has been polluting Brazil's northeastern beaches since early September is likely coming from Venezuela, according to a report by Brazil's state oil company cited by the country's environment minister. The oil sludge has now reached 61 municipalities in nine Brazilian states, contaminating over 130 beaches, in what Brazilian officials have called an "unheard of" disaster. (Andre Moreira/Aracaju Municipal Press Office via AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's public prosecutor's office requested the government be forced to activate its national plan to minimize damages caused by an oil spill contaminating the nation's northeast coast, including popular tourist beaches.

The office filed the request on Thursday and released a statement the following day. It alleges the government's response has thus far been "silent, inert, inefficient and ineffective" in the face of the spreading crude.

Prosecutors from the nine states whose coasts have been sullied by the sludge - whose origin remains unknown - asked the federal justice system to grant the government a 24-hour period to activate the plan and set a daily fine equivalent to nearly $250,000 for failure to comply.

In 2013, the government created a contingency plan to mitigate damages and avoid public health risks in the case of future oil spills. Among other directives, it calls for the formation of a unified command center for operations to broaden the state's response.

The attorney general's office, which represents the federal government legally, confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that it was called upon to respond to the request from the public prosecutor's office within 24 hours.

The oil slicks began appearing at the start of September along some 1,300 miles of coastline. The crude has washed up on at least 187 beaches since, according to the most-recent report from Brazil's environmental regulator, Ibama.

The government's response has been criticized by oceanographers and environmental NGOs including Greenpeace. Brazil's Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, this week told local press all necessary means were adopted for the crude's identification and collection.

In recent weeks, many Brazilians took to the tainted beaches to remove the oil with neither instruction from authorities nor proper equipment. Local television showed images in recent days of dozens of volunteers digging and raking the sand in order to clean the beach.

The oil on Friday reached the Carneiros beach, known as one of the "jewels" of Pernambuco state's coast.

The crude's origin remains a mystery. Minister Salles said the oil likely originated in Venezuela - which its government denies - and that the circumstances of the spill are unknown.

The Navy is overseeing the investigation and its primary hypothesis is the crude spilled from a boat navigating offshore Brazil.

Without offering proof, President Jair Bolsonaro suggested on Friday that the spill could be tied to the government's progress in auctioning off offshore oil fields for exploration and production. The next round of the auctions will be held November 7.

"Coincidence or not, we have an auction. I ask myself, 'Could it be a criminal act to hurt the auction? It's a