SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – An oil spill stretching as wide as five miles was discovered off the southern coast of Puerto Rico, where it threatens environmentally sensitive corals and mangroves, authorities said Friday.
Beaches just west of the city of Ponce between Guanica and Guayanilla were closed as the thick shiny material floated closer to shore. Some had already touched land, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said.
The Coast Guard and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources were still trying to figure out where the oil originated from.
“We don’t know exactly what it is. It’s a black, oily, tar-like substance,” Castrodad said. “The aerial view showed four or five patches, each of up to 500 yards long and 50 yards wide, spread out about five miles.”
Authorities used a special fund to hire Gamma Oil Co. to begin recovery efforts and contain the spill, he added.
There was no clear sign Friday where the substance had come from, said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Javier Velez Arocho. Guayanilla is home to several old oil refineries as well as other oil installations. Hurricane Dean sent heavy winds and waves into the area.
Managers of nearby oil plants told the El Nuevo Dia newspaper that inspections did not reveal any leaks.
“It’s really a mess,” Velez said in an interview Friday with the Miami Herald. “It’s a moderate spill with heavy environmental impact.”
The substance threatens sea stars, queen conchs, octopus, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and commercial fishing, he said.
The spill is dangerously close to Guanica Dry Forest, a United Nations biosphere reserve of 10,000 acres inhabited by more than 600 uncommon types of plants and animals, including 48 endangered species and 16 that are unique to Puerto Rico.
The Coast Guard was out taking samples of the substance Friday to determine what it is, where it came from and how to get rid of it, Velez said. “There’s a lot of environmentally sensitive mangroves and reefs, as well as small islands tourists visit that may be affected,” Castrodad said. “The thick substance looks like it can be recovered with a shovel, but this is going to take a while. It’s not going to be a one or two day job.”
The last major oil spill in Puerto Rico was in 1994, when a tanker barge spilled about 750,000 gallons of oil on the island’s Escambron Beach.