Venezuela sends in Guarapiche cleaners

Cleanup: Workers set up barriers to contain the oil spill in the Guarapiche River on the outskirts of Maturin in this 7 February photo.

Venezuela will put 1500 people to work clearing up an oil spill at a river in the east of the country that has forced the authorities to close a water purification plant, the environment minister said on Sunday.

Officials say an accident on 4 February ruptured a pipeline carrying crude near the city of Maturin in the latest of many mishaps to afflict state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, also known as PDVSA.

It was not clear how much crude had been spilled in the Guarapiche River, Reuters reported.

An opposition lawmaker has told local media as many as 60,000 barrels of crude were spilled in the Guarapiche, but there was no confirmation of that from PDVSA or the government.

Speaking separately to Venezuela's state news agency AVN, senior PDVSA executive Ramiro Ramirez said "a good percentage" of the oil had now been collected from the river, and that PDVSA and the authorities had spared no effort in their response.

Officials shut down a purification plant that supplies water to about a third of Maturin.

"The work of these 1500 people will let us speed up the cleaning of the river, and we estimate that within a maximum of 10 days we will be able to reopen the main water supply to the city," Environment Minister Alejandro Hitcher told reporters at the scene in Monagas state.

He said there was no risk of drinking water being contaminated because a different plant was being used temporarily to supply Maturin, and that it was a "typical situation" for a country with an important oil industry, Reuters reported.

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