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Shell’s toxic legacy, Curaçao


Curaçao is a Caribbean island, it is located about 65 km north of the Venezuelan coast in South America, it is an ex colony of the Kingdom of the Netherlands until it became independent (within the Kingdom) in 2010. The island is worldwide recognized for been one of the main hotspots for tourism (beautiful landscapes, beaches and other tourism amenities). However, and according with Pulster (2015) the island rank in the top 10 environmental polluted sites due to the emissions of the hundred years old oil-refinery: the Isla.

In the early 20th century, oil was discovered off the coast of Venezuela. And Curaçao was the perfect location for Royal Dutch Shell (Dutch company) to capitalize on the “new black gold”.  In 1915, Shell established the “Isla” refinery.  From 1915 to 1985, the Dutch company Shell ran the refinery. For decades, the company was the largest employer. The number of jobs at the refinery topped 10,000 during 1950s and 1960s. In 1985, for the symbolic sum of a single guilder, the Dutch multinational transferred ownership to the island’s government. Local people affirm that Shell decided to sell the project as they perceived that in the future they will have to face complains for local health and environmental damages related to the refinery.

Dwellers affirm that up to now, the refinery is an “ecological nightmare”. It’s been cranking out poison for decades. As an example of this, there is the “Asphalt Lake” (52 ha hardly polluted): “During World War II, the Shell refinery on Curacao produced a substantial quantity of fuel for the Allied forces. At that time the market demand for light oil products was higher than for heavy oil products, causing an overproduction of asphalt. Since the asphalt was of no use at the moment, it was pumped close to the refinery. This spot was later called “asphalt lake”. It is estimated that 1.5 million ton was dumped in the lake during the war” in sum a chemical waste lake at the same location of the asphalt lake, is another heritage from Shell. Useless- residues, in particular those of lubricating oil refining processes, were dumped. Asphalt is also found at this lake because since 1942 Shell also used it as a dump for asphalt. 

Currently, the plant  is owned by the government of Curacao but it is run by Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).  While Shell left a legacy of a colossal poisonous artificial lake of asphalt, the residue of the production of benzene and aircraft fuel, PDVSA has since been responsible for thirty million kilos of CO2, a by-product of the process, which has been discharged into the air breathed by 20,000 local residents. The results have been serious damage to these people's’ health. Currently, Shell’s position is that it has no longer any obligation to help, while PVDSA shows little concern for environmental norms. SMOC and activist group suit the company for air pollution and health damages associated to air pollution. Due to this, the government had to start measuring levels of hazardous substances such as sulphur dioxide, however there is no punishment if they exceed the norms. In 2007 the name of the refinery was changed into Refineria Isla Curaçao B.V. The refinery is currently in operation, the lease runs out in 2019. In 2016 and due to the Venezuelan and PDVA crisis, the government of Curacao has signed a preliminary agreement with China’s Guangdong Zhenrong Energy to operate the Isla refinery and invest some $10 billion in upgrading the facility

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Shell’s toxic legacy, Curaçao
State or province:Willemstad
Location of conflict:Willemstad
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Oil and gas refining
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Industrial waste
Heavy metals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

-There is apparently 2 million tonnes of toxic material (asbestos, heavy metals etc) in a lake of asphalt within an area of 52 hectares.

-The health of thousands of people living downwind of the refinery has been threatened through substantial emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Empty barrels were filled with toxic residues and dumped into the sea.

-Shell remained on the island for decades and became a major employer, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when the number of jobs at the refinery topped 10,000.

-Prices at the pumps on the island are approximately $1.30 (£0.80) per litre, about 25 times higher than in Venezuela where petrol is heavily subsidised.

-Currently, the refinery produces 340,000 barrels of oil a day for shipment onwards to the US and South America.

Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:1985
Company names or state enterprises:Guangdong Zhenrong Energy from China
PDVSA from Venezuela
Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) from Netherlands
Relevant government actors:The kingdom of the Netherlands, Government of Curacao; Minister of Health and Environment; Coordination Center Expertise Working Conditions and Health (CEAG).
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Ejos: Institution Clean Environment On Curaçao (Stichting SMOC);
Supporters: Friends of the Earth International

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Demanding a clean-up;


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Oil spills
Other Environmental impactsSpecific impacts to the sea and marine ecosystems.
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases, Deaths
Other Health impactsEvery year at least eighteen people die from the pollution.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Displacement


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Withdrawal of company/investment
Proposal and development of alternatives:Demand of a clean-up
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Shell Company has not take responsibility of their environmental and health damages in Curaçao. This is a typical case of toxic imperialism. Currently, 18 people died due to the toxic pollution every year, they have not received any compensation and despite this, the project is ongoing.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Industrial pollution and human rights: A case study of the Isla refinery on Curaçao

Pulster, Erin L., "Assessment of Public Health Risks Associated with Petrochemical Emissions Surrounding an Oil Refinery" (2015). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.

Shell Toxic Contamination In Curacao


The Infamous Isla Refinery of Curaçao

Shell’s toxic legacy in Curacao

Caribbean island Curacao faces oil refinery dilemma

SMOC: "Close down Isla-refinery until they comply with permit"

Shell ‘apologises’ for worldwide damage in “erratum” to annual report


Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Stichting Smoc group

Refineria Isla Curaçao B.V.

Zembla: Poisoned paradise

Other comments:"The air is contaminated and there's a terrible smell of sulphur," says Edgar Leito who set up a campaign group to protest against the continued use of the refinery.
"There where no rules for Shell with the toxic materials" Edgar Leito

Meta information

Contributor:Grettel Navas (ENVJustice Project)
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3159



La Isla Refinery


La Isla Refinery


stichting SMOC