It Stinks:


The Isla Refinery


call to complain
GGD has opened a phone number to complain about Isla.
You can call anonymously (they never seem to have heard of caller-ID?)
between 09:00-16:00
(too bad if it happens at night or in the week-end
as customary)

Close Isla Down
You can sign a petition-on-line to close down the Isla refinery to end the disaster ASAP; a SMOC-initiative.
More info supplied there.

news items
Around April 15, 2005, new complaints came in on green precipitation, allegedly consisting of SO2 globules. One of the craziest aspects of the entire affair is that Julianadorp, which originally was built by Shell for staff personnel well out of the range of their own smoke, has had many more pollution problems since a high smoke stack was built. This, not unexpectedly, results in the rubbish just coming down a bit farther away - but not far enough.
After Isla first denied causing the problem, it was definitely proven they did. They then blamed Mitsubishi for a design failure of the smoke-stack and claimed the problems had been solved.
In December 2006, the BOO plant broke down once again, causing millions of damage. It was so bad, Mitsubishi sent out engineers to check here what was wrong. We knew it, and so must they, all the time: The plant has been designed for another grade of fuel than that in use.
By the way, the waiter at the Curaçao Miramar Japanese Restaurant told me he was very surpised (and disappointed is a fair guess) that those big bosses of Mitsubishi never gave tips - I explained that, in Japan, nobody gives tips. He said that, after their first visit, he'd just added the tips to the bill.
One week later there was a fire in the refinery's cat cracker, which was shut down because of a leak. Only next day Isla conceded there had been a fire. Flaring (burning off of sulfur) started once again, resulting in the by now only too well-known effects of heavy black smoke and enormous noise.
In 2004 the refinery had to be shut down completely for six weeks after another fire, resulting in an 18M loss. Isla representatives pooh-poohed the fire and accompanying problems.

latest news


Political Links
Because refinery developments are so intricately, inextricably, intermingled
with our politics, to stay abreast of latest developments please visit our Circus:

the Clowns

(Use [Ctrl+F] there to find Isla)

In December 2007, when the BOO power plant once again performed its well-known act of breaking down, Isla had to turn off the cat cracker. This resulted in a $ 10 to 12 million loss before the cat cracker came back on line, only to be shut down again because of hot spots indicating parts of the isolation had disappeared. As the down time will be more than two weeks, the estimated loss will grow higher.
Upon that aborted start-up, the usual clouds, flames and noise were belched out. This time, there was a heavy gasoline leakage. Nobody dared tell us how heavy (beyond some vague talk about 'thousands of liters') which indicates it's very heavy. As there happened to be hardly any wind, a cloud of gasoline fumes hung over the entire city of Willemstad, virtually smothering the center of the island with a highly poisonous vapor. Five schools had to close because pupils became nauseous, which indicates there was over 1500mg/m3 of air present, while an amount of 1000mg/m3 for over an hour is a dangerous condition.
According to SMOC's Peter van Leeuwen, gasoline inherently always is a carcinogen, and besides much nerve-damaging toluene it contains benzene, of which even small amounts are extremely harmful - especially to babies and elderly people.
Peter Stuyvesant high school chemistry teacher Arjen Linthorst measured a pH-value of 4,5 (7 is normal.) This means the acidity has gone down with a factor of 100-500%, indicating a much too high amount of SO2. The blue smoke shows there must have been something else in the air.
In a 1958 Augsburg, Germany, environmental disaster the SO2 value was 200 microgram/m3, a strong indication of possible heart problems. The maximum allowed internationally is 83/m3; the daily average downwind of Isla is 125/m3. There have been asthma attacks during this disaster; medical doctors expect to see more heart attacks, and people with COPD breathing diseases run a severe risk these days.
[GP Adriana Boersma of SMOC]
In a press release, gezaghebber mentions the release of catalyzers; these are highly poisonous and contain heavy metals. Nonetheless, she claims there was no damage to health. DP Norbert George, also president of Humanitaire Zorg foundation wonders if she knows what she's talking about at all: Has she done any measurements? The normal daily dose of refinery pollutants already exceeds the norms.
Gezaghebber's press release came only an hour after the schools were, normally, already closed. As it also turns out, a 1999 recommendation to prepare a disaster plan for just such a contingency has never had any follow-up. Isla claims that 'naftacatalica' have escaped, but that these 'merely stink'. As is only to be expected, gezaghebber uncritically repeats Isla's comments, which boil down to:
Not to worry, folks. Everything is just fine.

How about that?
According to an American press agent located in Caracas
PdVSA people in the know call Isla their best refinery.
Now that's scary.

Standard conditions - for us
Isla's total yearly output of SO2 is 75 million kilograms; that of the Dutch Pernis refinery is 16 million kgs, while it processes almost twice as much oil.
SO2 Sulfur dioxide, the main cause of 'acid rain' may cause eye and throat irritations, heart, lung and vascular diseases, premature birth and retarded growth of children. It also causes material damage to cars, buildings etcetera.
The ATSDR acute MRL for SO2 is 10 ppb. The Environmental Protection Agency's National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for sulfur dioxide is 30 ppb for an annual average. A 24-hour average of 140 ppb should not be exceeded more than once per year. A secondary standard of 500 ppb S02 is set for a 3-hour average. Primary NAAQS standards are defined as the levels of air quality necessary, with an adequate margin of safety, to protect the public health. Secondary standards are defined as the levels of air quality necessary to protect the public welfare from any known or anticipated effects of a pollutant.
friends of the earth

August 2005 treated the downwind barrios to yet another outbreak of heavy black smoke. Isla refinery claimed this was caused by a breakdown in the by now infamous BOO plant, resulting in a lack of power available. As it turned out, this was due to a normal partial shutdown for maintenance, which had been announced in ample time before. Finally and for once, government environment control Milieudienst announced Isla had gone too far. Will they be fined? No, not even that - it would be reported in a proces-verbaal. This surely will scare PdVSA to death!

PdVSA is supposed to maintain the refinery to international standards. Too bad nobody in the world knows what those are. Another little problem is that it was omitted to record the refinery's state of maintenance upon take-over.

Ban Vota

some remarks from Norbert George's book
Koninkrijksbeleid fataal voor Curaçao
[Kingdom policy fatal for Curaçao]

12.5% of the Curaçao population. of which 5,500 are children, is structurally exposed to seriously damaging matters. George mentions that at an early age there are serious respiratory problems, asthma, bronchitis, birth defects, mental defects and delayed development. Grownups further die earlier, have cancer, chronic lung ailments and more, mostly chronic, affections.
There are hardly any statistics available or gathered, relating possible causes of diseases and mortality figures to the Isla pollution. It almost looks like a plot.
George characterizes all this, and many other failures in government, as a crime against humanity. He uses the term machtsbederf [state crime] to describe the governments of the Kingdom and the Antilles in this and other matters.
The negative health effects of the Shell refinery were well known since the 1983 report of the Dienst Centraal Milieubeheer Rijnmond (Central Environment Control). Curaçao figures were about 4 times those accepted elsewhere. This includes SO2, SO4 and TSP (total suspended particles). In total, these average 2.2 times those of the USA EPA standard. The refinery stench is perceptible at more than 2kms distance. For ozone, which becomes dangerous at 194µ/m3, the Curaçao standard is 240µ/m3. There are several oil leaks into Schottegat harbor, from old and badly maintained installations. Visiting ships cause more pollution.
George details, but not very deeply, the deliberations between Esso, Shell, PdVSA and the Dutch government—an important share holder in Shell. All in all, it effectively resulted in a national debt of $2G in 1985 for the NA. The present debt is much higher, as an unavoidable consequence.
You can download the book in PDF format from the publisher, or order it here. There's much more.


In many cities all over the world, when you leave an engine idling for longer than two minutes you get a hefty fine. Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles... But not in Curaçao! The sticker above is in every public bus and says Upon arriving at terminal pull out the hand-throttle do not leave the motor running at a low R.P.M.
Disregarding the primitive interpunction: What can you hope for with this mentality, anyway?
On the Otrabanda square where all buses and mini-buses stop, nobody shuts off their engines. So prospective passengers wait there breathing deathly fumes.

China vs. Curaçao
With an economy fueled by coal mines
the very heavy air pollution in China is less than it is here.
New York Times 2006-06-11. Only in

In Court:
Isla refinery versus the People

Tourist Map

If you consider coming to Curaçao as a tourist, think again:
The red circle within that yellow Triangle of Pollution is
where four large hotels and a golf course
with annexes have been built

more info
Stichting Humanitaire Zorg

Humane Care Foundation Curaçao
In July 2006, SMOC and Humanitaire Zorg announced to start an action on behalf of inhabitants of Wishi/Marchena, barrios in the smoke, against the refinery. Some twenty people claimed damages, and about one hundred more of those present at the meeting took home a form to fill out. The action was formally announced on 17 August.

Lady Justice
A Quote Worth Quoting
PdVSA today has made clear that we are here to stay. We are determined to invest in order to make Isla a world-class refinery. We are prepared for any technical option proposed.

Alejandro Granado, PdVSA vice-president

If you wonder
- where they found the money after not having any such a short time ago
- if this includes fighting pollution
- whether this has to do with the Orinoco oil deposits
- what this sudden change of heart has to do with the judge's verdicts
- so do we.
Let us all wonder, and worry, together.

This 'emergency measure' goes on night and day - turning the deadly poison H2S into acid-rain SO2
and many other even worse compounds like benzene and toluene (both carcinogens)
Milieudienst is empowered to fine Isla for ANG5K per instance, which is ridiculously low
- they never do

Listen who's talking
In an Amigoe article of 2005-10-01 by Carolina Nicolaas on the subject whether Curaçao should sell the refinery, Isla director Pedro Jiménez (a Venezuelan national) came out with several gems, of which this one glitters most: Having your own refinery guarantees the local sales of your products. [Emphasis added.] Wow! That's a relief to know. He really had me worried there for a while, before reassuring us we should hang on to it.
In convoluted reasoning, he proceeds to tell us that for the Venezuelan state, running Isla is a social enterprise; and that for us, it's much better to be dependent on a foreign state than on a private enterprise. If he's serious, hard as that is to believe, his reasoning dates from the early Marxist communism days, just like Chavez' and Castro's. Times have changed since then.
He goes on to tell that Shell left the refinery behind in such a sorry state, nobody but the Venezuelan state would have taken it over. The facts are quite contrary: Since PdVSA has taken over, refinery quality and safety conditions have deteriorated. Contractors whose raison d'être was maintenance work for the refinery have been going out of business.
It's not the first time an Isla director comes out with a bunch of more-than-half lies like this. The Dutch, as usual, have a fitting proverb, freely translated: When the fox preaches compassion, farmer, mind your chickens.
If there's one conclusion one could draw from these PdVSA statements, it's that Venezuela needs the Isla refinery - our bargaining position is much stronger
than those in power realize.

Some months later, Jimenez changed his tune and said the best solution would be for Isla and PdVSA to join forces with a company like Shell. It also turned out Curaçao island government feels the refinery has to be kept working for another 30 or 40 years. As most prognoses indicate world oil reserves will be as good as depleted around 2020, even if these are wrong you may well ask what those government expectations are based upon.

Isla fire
© Edsel Sambo for Amigoe

A fabulous fire broke out on Isla refinery (4 December 2005) which took two hours to get under control. Flames of 150 meters height colored the night sky even more intensely than normally. The cat cracker had to be shut down, which led in burning off of even more gas than usual, resulting in noise and stench. It turned out that, with Venezuelan parliament elections coming on, security was more intense than usual. Interesting! But an evacuation plan for the inhabitants of the downwind barrios is still not available.
1/3rd of the refinery has had to shut down for ten days, or more. Fire was caused by a leak of 200 barrels of fuel (we're left to guess what kind: diesel? high octane gasoline?) - that's 31,920 liters or almost 32 cubic meters.
In the 'huge' Russian Byransk oil spill of July 2006, 50m3 of crude was lost.

Remembering Wrong
At a 2006 memorial service for the Isla fire of 1986 where two workers died, it was announced that Dienst Arbeidszorg [work welfare] will start a safety investigation of refinery installations. About time, too; even though nobody made clear when this would begin. Deputy of public health and social affairs van der Gen stated: The refinery has always been of great economic importance, but times have changed. Now safety and environment are very important.
What would make this funny if it wasn't so sadly stupid is that way back when, with the refinery run by Shell, it was one of the very safest in the world.
Isla must have become much more important to PdVSA
with the Orinoco deposits of extremely heavy crude oil

It goes on and on, every single day seems to be an emergency - not so hard to believe
look at the image on the left, compare flame length with balustrade height and figure: Flame is over 18m long, or even >20
photo Willy Verstappen

or, Who's Boss Here?
On November 15, Isla refinery re-started the damaged cat cracker after the fire, omitting to inform Milieudienst how much pollution and noise this would cause. The process took much longer than expected anyway, with much more noise and smoke than foreseen, and the next morning Milieudienst ordered Isla to stop the start-up process. Isla refused, upon which Milieudienst contacted the attorney general. By the time action could be taken, the start-up process was almost finished. Milieudienst now wants the refinery to close down and start intensive maintenance operations on the cat-cracker at once instead of, as planned, in March 2006. If a compromise with Isla can't be reached, the refinery will be forced to close down by the public prosecutor.
SMOC foundation estimates at least 48 extra tons of sulfur dioxide have been released daily in those four days. This is about one quarter more than the normal daily amount of 205 tons, already almost 10 times international standards.

Fancy That!
In July 2006, the Milieudienst got their very own measuring apparatus with a training thrown in,
so they are not dependent upon whatever Isla chooses to tell them anymore.

isla fart
(almost reminds you of Reuter in Beirut
- but this is not a fake)

At It Again
Beginning March 2006 the cat-cracker started belching, burping and vomiting again; you never really get used to it. Two schools sent their pupils home because of complaints, among which a metal taste in the mouth - a strong indication of possible lead poisoning. SMOC thinks Isla refinery has omitted maintenance for two years and now wants to be complimented for doing it all at once. SMOC wants a referendum to choose between keeping the refinery or getting rid of it. My gloomy prediction on this is, if and when, it will only be after it has stopped mattering.

The cat-cracker troubles still were not over by the end of May 2006. After delays in the maintenance procedures (caused by past unplanned shutdowns the cracker was finally started up again on May 16, but after two weeks of having continued its old tricks of emitting fine dust, it came to an abrupt halt by a short circuit.

On August 18, the BOO energy plant lost at least one boiler, resulting a refinery shutdown of reputedly over 96%. This in turn caused so much refinery smoke and flames that people thought there was a fire. Also, 40% of the island temporarily lost its power supply.
Deputy Pierre now wants a technical audit of BOO, and even uses the word sabotage - again; but also again, we're not so sure. BOO later announced problems will not be solved in less than two months, bur foresees no problems. Here, we're even less sure; we have not been told how many boilers they have, but two of them are out of commission.

Junk Science
The Netherlands Antilles is the third on the UN world list of CO2 producers.
Keep in mind this is caused only by Curaçao island with its refinery and its enormous energy consumption
(over four times European average and over twice that for gasoline).
[Norbert George, private communication]

No Surprise:
It was no real surprise to hear deputy Hernandez declare in June 2006 that
We must consider if, regarding pollution, we want to and can reach
the level of the World Health Organization, or whether we have to be satisfied with less.

What shameless chutzpah! Let them breath smoke, and who cares about global warming? But he got even better:
Air pollution has been the same for years, and normally is no problem.
Only incidental problems result in a nuisance.

oilspill flowers

Disaster Plan for a Disaster Area
Come right down to it, it's pretty cynical to consider a Disaster Plan for a refinery that almost is a Planned Disaster in itself. Sure, it could get worse - much worse; but present conditions are much too bad already.
Anyway, the planned Disaster Plan will not even be ready in 2006, and it is a very reasonable assumption that even that late date has been pushed forward by recent protests. The plan mainly comes from the Rotterdam Fire Brigade, and has been delayed because they first had to plan how to act in case of a terrorist attack. First things first.
The Disaster Plan knows three worst case scenarios: An explosion (according to experts, not imaginary) - a gas release - and a fire in the largest storage tanks. Danger areas are now still being mapped. Depending on results, alarm systems for the downwind areas will be defined and bought.
There will be workshops to define further details for the Disaster Plan, which is hoped will be ready by January 2007. It was not; not even by end March. Haven't heard about workshops, either. A large-scale multi-disciplinary exercise will be held in the second half of 2007. If we're unlucky, that may be December. Meanwhile, we can only try to keep coping with the ongoing disaster of illegal pollution in multiple forms, and hope nothing even more serious occurs before then.
Update: There finally was a "multidisciplary" disaster exercise in April 2008, but only on the refinery itself.
How Typical:
Democracy, Curaçao Style

End 2004, environment deputy van der Gen started a task force to report in a period of 3 months on how to reduce Isla pollution. The report was only ready in June 2006, but would not be made public before SMOC's court case was over. But then, it was not published because van der Gen wanted to come with P ositive news. While she first promised SMOC, Humanitaire Zorg and the inhabitants below the smoke participation in the task force, she later reduced them to a 'sounding board' - and then told them they might read the reports before they were given to bestuurscollege. Finally, she reneged on that promise as well.
In all that time, the commission Refineria Isla NV, consisting of island government members who are supposed to follow developments closely, has held only one reunion. Bet you can guess the names of commission members:
By September 2006, after Pierre had paid another visit to Venezuela, it was decided that PdVSA, Isla, BOO and Aqualectra, milieudienst and juridische zaken would look at the problems together. A real confidence builder, that. But to make sure it was all kosher, a foreign party would participate as well. (Say, how about Purvin and Gertz?)
Next thing we knew, two Isla refinery workers were nominated by bestuurscollege as members of StIP privatization foundation. Might as well invite Chávez himself, but he's too busy.

Pollution Poll
UNA university students, in a September 2006 political poll, asked a 900-person sample of the population about the future of the Isla refinery. The news comes from a newspaper (Amigoe), so you couldn't expect details on statistical reliability. But a whopping 24.8% wanted it to close down if it was damaging to the public health. 23.5% had no opinion, and a meager majority of 50.5% felt it had to remain open, even if it damaged public health. It seems safe to assume that those last do not live downwind of Isla.
One month later, four executioners signed a document sentencing about some 180 people to death in the next ten years. After ten years of working under the Nuisance Act license SMOC is fighting in court and a report prepared for Bestuurscollege which found Isla activities caused at least 18 premature deaths per year, deputies Rhuggenaath PAR, Jackson PAR (education), Cooper MAN, and van der Gen PNP (public health) agreed to let Isla continue regardless. They repeated that, if the Nuisance Act was complied with, the refinery had to close down, confirming quite clearly confirms that they are more interested in (doubtful) economic advantages than in public welfare.
The appeal served in court on November 30, but at country governments request has been posponed to February so PdVSA can also be represented.
The third week of November, 2006, Humane Care started collecting signatures on schools for a formal complaint with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and the Commission for Rights of the Child. Norms as stipulated in the nuisance act for exhaust of SO2 and soot by Isla and BOO together are already exceeded by each on their own resulting in lung problems for 12,000 people and premature deaths, as found in a government study.

Curaçao economy

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