Crude oil that has stained hundreds of miles of Brazilian beach in recent weeks probably originated in Venezuela, the Brazilian government said, in a charge that is likely to further damage relations between the two countries.
Brazilian authorities have been investigating the growing disaster for more than a month, as oil has spread to more than 130 beaches in nine states.
On Wednesday, the country's environment minister, Ricardo Salles, told a congressional hearing that a study by state-owned oil company Petrobras concluded that oil "is very likely from Venezuela."
He said a foreign ship near the Brazilian coast appeared to have caused the spill "accidentally or not."
Salles said more than 100 tons of oil had been collected from the coast since 2 in September, but said the disaster was proving "extremely difficult to contain".
There was no immediate response from Venezuela, but it is likely that the Brazilian statement will further increase tensions between the two countries. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's far-right president, is a longtime critic of Venezuela's embattled leader, Nicolás Maduro, and maintains close relations with right-wing Venezuelan groups seeking his overthrow.
Earlier this week, Bolsonaro ruled out speculation that the leak had been launched by a sinking ship. “If it were a wreck, the oil would still be coming. It is more likely that something was thrown there criminally, ”he told reporters.
Bolsonaro said he did not want to blame another country without evidence, but grimly suggested, "We have a country on our radar screen that may be the source of oil."
Petrobras Chief Executive Roberto Castello said on Tuesday that the amount of oil spilled so far - about 500 barrels - was too much to result from the routine cleaning of the tanks.
Social media users shared shocking images of the spill, showing miles of oil-stained white sand with dead turtles and dolphins covered with the substance. A video shows a thick black oil on a rocky pier.
The appearance of oil came shortly after Brazil became the focus of international criticism of forest fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest - which has increased since Bolsonaro took office.
Indigenous environmentalists and leaders say Bolsonaro's removal of environmental laws and protections has triggered a new attack on the country's ecosystems.
“The oil spill that hit more than 132 beaches in the northeast is criminal. Removing ocean debris can take 10 to 20 years, ”former Environment Minister Marina Silva said in a tweet. "This is a warning that we need to strengthen and not stifle environmental monitoring institutions in the country."
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