Algae fed by pollution carpet Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo in green

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MARACAIBO, Venezuela Dec 8 (Reuters) - Residents of Venezuela's northwestern Zulia state long ago became accustomed to the dark waters of Lake Maracaibo, tinted black by oil pollution. But worsening contamination has changed the lake's color, spangling it with green algae.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, human and animal fecal matter, and agricultural fertilizers washed in from nearby farms have joined oil leaking from rusted pipelines to contaminate the 13,000-square-km lake, biologists and locals told Reuters.

Plastic garbage - often eaten by animals - accrues on its shore.

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"There's lots of rundown infrastructure and the (sewage) treatment plants have been slowly dismantled by crime and are no longer operational," said biologist Lenin Parra, professor of environmental management at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela in Maracaibo.

As spilled oil decomposes, its most toxic elements either rise into the air or break down into substances that serve as fertilizers, stoking the algae's propagation in tandem with the agricultural chemicals and feces, biologists said.

Entire areas of Lake Maracaibo, which is dotted with oil rigs, are now covered in the single-cell algae, Parra said.

It forms a green carpet, preventing sunlight from reaching plant life deeper in the lake and stopping oxygen generation vital for the lake's animal life to survive.

"This is extreme," said Alejandro Alvarez, a biologist and activist from non-governmental organization Clima21. "It's like living next to a toilet. Nothing good can come of that."

A cornucopia of garbage, washed into the lake's basin from 40 polluted tributaries, litters over 90% of the lake's shoreline, the biologists said.

Zulia was one of Venezuela's chief oil-producing states but its output has been reduced by years of divestment and mismanagement, as well as economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Prior to Venezuela's multiyear recession and hyperinflation, which has caused millions of citizens to flee, Zulia was also an important producer of meat and milk.

Now it is beset by a dearth of basic services, with frequent power outages and cuts to water supplies.

Fisherman Herberto Molero, 50, said fish populations have dwindled.

"Before you saw more fish, now you see more oil, more duckweed," Molero said as he repaired his net by the lake's edge in Santa Rosa de Agua. "When you pass by the beaches you can see the diesel spills, plastic fuel tanks: everything is thrown into the lake."

This year, environmental group Mapache Ecoaventura has rescued three ospreys - a fish-eating bird of prey - poisoned after eating fish from the lake, said founder Jose Sandoval.

"We're killing the lake," he said.

A loggerhead sea turtle, listed as endangered, died from a blockage in its gut after it ingested more than a kilo of plastic, Sandoval added.

"If it doesn't turn black with oil, it turns green with algae," said housecleaner Mary Baez, 50, who lives in Santa Rosa de Agua. "Instead of a lake, we have a giant sewer."

Venezuela's state-run Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and the country's oil ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the pollution.

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Reporting by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Mark Porter

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