The stench of gasoline burned through Verónica Barboza’s nose as she stood by the edge of Lake Maracaibo, one of the largest lakes in South America, on a recent afternoon.

The soles of her shoes, she said, were stained black by the petroleum gushing from pipes under the water. Once a symbol of Venezuela’s oil richness, the lake is now contaminated by crumbling machinery spitting crude oil and bright-green blooms of algae — pollution that can be seen from space.

Swirls of green, black and beige across one of the world’s most ancient lakes were captured in September by NASA’s Earth Observatory. The satellite photos released Tuesday by the agency, experts say, underscore how Venezuela’s crisis has seeped into the environment — devastating wildlife and fishing communities as the country’s oil industry spirals into disrepair.

“The country’s situation and the environmental crisis are two sides of the same coin, and it’s stripping us from our natural wonders” said Barboza, a 19-year-old activist at Fridays For Future Venezuela, a group of young Venezuelans advocating for environmental justice.

Pollution can be seen in Lake Maracaibo stemming from algae blooms and oil slicks Sept. 10. (Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)
Lake Maracaibo, spanning some 5,100 square miles in northwestern Venezuela, is an estuarine lake — meaning the fresh water it was filled with thousands of years ago converges with the Caribbean’s salty seawater. The basin where it sits holds one of the largest known petroleum and gas reserves in the world, which have been extracted since the World War I era.

Pollution is not new in the place that NASA deemed “Earth’s lightning capital” for its impressive display of thunderstorms.

With more than 10,000 oil-related installations and a network of close to 16,000 miles of underwater pipelines in operation, slicks have been a constant occurrence at Lake Maracaibo. But never at the rate seen these days, said Eduardo Klein, director of the remote-sensing laboratory at Simón Bolívar University, where he uses NASA satellite images to document the oil slicks.

An oil spill is considered a crime under Venezuelan environmental law. Between 2010 and 2016, the state oil giant PDVSA was responsible for more than 46,000 spills of crude and other pollutants, according to a study by Provea, a Caracas-based human rights group. PDVSA stopped releasing data in 2016, reporting 8,250 oil spills that year — quadruple the number seen in 1999, the year that Hugo Chávez was sworn in as president.

The lack of government data has led researchers, activists and universities to try to fill the void, conducting their own studies on how many spills are taking place. According to a report from the Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology (OEP), a nongovernmental environmental organization, at least 53 have been detected this year to Sept. 16 across Zulia, Falcón and Anzoátegui — the three states harboring the country’s main refineries.

But recording the amount of oil is sometimes tricky — especially “when it’s not a singular spill, but you have ruptured pipelines pouring out petroleum continuously and almost every day,” Klein said.

In recent years, a lack of maintenance, a brain drain of technicians and corruption have crippled oil production, making oil accidents more common. Within the lake, thousands of wells are broken beyond repair, allowing raw crude and natural gas to bubble to the surface.