MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Two weeks after a pipeline leak in coastal Mexico sent oil gushing into a river, state oil monopoly Pemex has recovered about two-thirds of the spilled crude, but the full clean-up could take another month.
Mexico's environmental protection agency, Profepa, is supervising containment of the 1,500-barrel spill that killed fish, injured wildlife and left greasy slicks in the Coatzacoalcos river.
"Right now it is more about containing the emergency," Profepa official Sergio Herrera told Reuters. "There will be further actions to clean the river, the banks of the river, and the zone where the damage has happened."
Pemex blamed the December 31 leak in Veracruz state on vandalism. Fuel thieves routinely tap into Mexico's network of pipelines to steal oil and gas for sale on the black market, often causing small spills.
The company has contracted 140 workers to clean up the mess, which it said was mostly contained in a lagoon near the affected valve.
In December 2010, 28 people were killed when a massive spill caused by an illegal pipeline tap east of Mexico City caught fire and exploded.
The spill in Veracruz is the biggest since then. The latest images of fouled river banks and black sludge in the water have environmental groups questioning Pemex's spotty safety and environmental record just as it embarks on an ambitious plan of oil exploration in the deep waters off the Gulf of Mexico.
"If Pemex is incapable of dealing with an oil spill in a river, how would they contain one at a deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico?" Greenpeace Mexico's Beatriz Olivera said.
Pemex is eyeing the estimated 29 billion barrels of oil beneath its territorial Gulf waters as it aims to replace lost output from aging fields.
But upstream production and exploration poses different risks than overland transport of oil for refining, said Mexico-based energy analyst David Shields.
"The main onshore problem that Pemex is having with pipelines is vandalism. If you have some kind of problem with deepwater platforms, it's very unlikely to be vandalism," Shields said.
The 1,500-barrel pipeline spill is tiny compared with the 4 million barrels that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon well in 2010.
Mexico, the world's No. 7 oil producer, has stabilized output at around 2.6 million barrels per day after a sharp decrease at its largest fields. Pemex plans to have some 50 deepwater oil wells by 2015.
Mexico's oil industry watchdog, the National Hydrocarbons Commission (CNH), said Pemex has not yet acquired all of the necessary safety equipment to deal with deepwater accidents.
The CNH does not regulate downstream operations, so the Veracruz leak is out of its jurisdiction, but the watchdog said it was concerned about spills upstream.
"We have not seen spills decline," CNH president Juan Carlos Zepeda told Reuters. "In the past three years the number of incidents have increased, which is a risk factor."