A "relatively small" oil leak has been registered at a refinery off the Peruvian coast just 10 days after a major crude spill that workers are still battling to clean up, authorities said Wednesday.
The oil escaped Tuesday during work on an underwater pipeline of the La Pampilla refinery owned by Spanish energy giant Repsol, the environment ministry said.
The leak happened, it said, during an "operation to remove remnant crude" from the pipeline as part of an investigation into what occurred during the first spill on January 15.
A naval official said the new leak was "relatively small."
"It has been brought under control," said Navy Captain Jesus Menacho, head of coast guard operations.
Steps were being taken "so that this new spill does not reach the coast," he told the RPP broadcaster.
Repsol, for its part, denied there had been a new spill, saying in a statement Wednesday there was "a controlled upwelling of remnants of the spill of January 15" during work on infrastructure 18 meters (60 feet) underwater.
- Environmental emergency -
A tanker was offloading crude at the same refinery in Ventanilla, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Lima, when it spilled 6,000 barrels into the ocean on January 15.
Repsol said the tanker was hit by waves triggered by a tsunami after a massive volcanic eruption near Tonga.
The Peruvian government is demanding damages from Repsol, but the Spanish company denies responsibility, saying maritime authorities had issued no warning of freak waves after the Tonga eruption.
The new leak happened as hundreds of volunteers and hired hands raced against the clock to clean beaches after the initial spill from the Italian-flagged tanker "Mare Doricum."
Peru has declared an environmental emergency after almost 264,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) of crude oil spilled into the sea on that occasion.
The environment ministry said Sunday that more than 180 hectares -- equivalent to around 270 soccer fields -- of beach and 713 hectares of sea were affected, as sea currents spread the oil along the coast.
Countless birds and marine creatures have been killed, the tourism and fishing industries hit, and the health ministry has warned would-be bathers to stay away from affected beaches.
Environment Minister Ruben Ramirez warned at a press conference Wednesday evening that authorities would be "unyielding" when it came to sanctions around the new spill, "because they keep attacking a protected area where there is a great variety of marine life."
He said investigations were underway that could implicate the Repsol's board members in criminal proceedings.
The environment ministry's prosecutor Julio Cesar Guzman said Wednesday that four Repsol employees, including the production and environment managers "responsible for risk assessment," will be called to give statements.
"The damage is undeniable, the company has to answer as far as it can, because this is irremediable," Guzman told RPP.
A charge of "pollution," which carries a sentence of between four and seven years in prison, was being investigated, said Guzman.
He cited as a potentially aggravating factor that Repsol had initially given "false information" about the magnitude of the spill.
Jose Llacuachaqui, leader of a group for artisanal fishermen, told AFP a complaint would be lodged with the public prosecutor's office.
"It is outrageous that they continue to pollute the sea and the environment every day," he said.
Almost daily, dozens of fishermen protest on the beaches affected by the spill, prevented from going out to sea to make ends meet.
"I'm afraid I might get sick, I'm afraid I might fall or absorb a little oil, you never know, no matter how much PPE (personal protective equipment) you have," fisherman Jonathan Envites told AFP while helping the cleanup operation at Cavero Beach.
Another cleaner, Hector Fernandez, said the situation was "frustrating."
"It is contaminating the entire beach and thus affects several people who come to spend the summer and the fishermen who work every day to earn their living with sweat, with fishing."
Salons in the country have been offering free cuts to collect hair to help soak up the oil.