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Brazil is racing to contain oil spill in river

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Hundreds of workers dug runoff channels and strung barriers across a river in southern Brazil in a race to contain the country's worst oil spill in 25 years.

State oil company Petrobras said late Tuesday that its crews succeeded in containing the spill near Balsa Nova, a town about 25 miles downstream from the Getulio Vargas oil refinery.

But Jose Antonio Andreguetto, president of Parana State's Environmental Protection Agency, disputed those reports, saying at least 20 percent of the slick had breached the barriers.

A pipe in the Petrobras-owned refinery burst Sunday and spewed more than 1 million gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Iguacu River.

But on Tuesday night, a Petrobras official who declined to be identified said the spill was smaller than the company had initially believed, though he didn't provide a new estimate of its size.

He said crews already had removed more than 85,000 gallons of oil from the river, and at least 20 percent of the oil already had evaporated.

Environmentalists said the chances were remote that the oil could reach Iguacu Falls, 400 miles away. Iguacu is one of the world's biggest water falls and a major tourist attraction.

"I am very optimistic about our ability to stop the oil before it reaches the falls," Andreguetto said. "But the possibility cannot be discarded."

Dead fish, birds and mammals coated in oil were washing up on the Iguacu's banks, environmental officials said. Egrets and capybaras — the world's largest rodent — were particularly hard hit. Riverside residents were instructed to stop irrigating crops and cooking with the water.

Environmentalists said their goal was to keep the spill from reaching Uniao da Vitoria, a city of 70,000 people about 125 miles below the slow-moving slick. The city depends on the Iguacu for drinking water.

Andreguetto said the spill already has hurt the water supplies for about 10,000 riverside residents. And while the water quality could recover within two or three days, environmentalists said the oil-coated river bed and banks will take longer to bounce back.

"Plants and animals are significantly affected," said Andreguetto. "The rehabilitation of the ecosystem will take a long time and will be very difficult."

More than 1,000 oil workers, firefighters, civil defense workers and environmentalists worked through the night Monday in freezing temperatures to check the spill.

On Tuesday, three barriers were set up across the 150-foot-wide river. Bulldozers and backhoes dug runoff channels to collect the contaminated water and oil workers with hoses sucked it off the surface.

A dam and a reservoir immediately downstream will collect whatever oil slips by the barriers, Andreguetto said.

The Parana State Environmental Protection Agency has said it will fine Petrobras $28 million. On Tuesday, federal officials said they would fine Petrobras $56 million.

"Petrobras must answer for this," Environment Minister Jose Sarney Filho said. "This is absolute negligence."

Petrobras President Henri Phillipe Reichstul said the company accepts full responsibility for the accident and that "unlimited" resources will be used to repair the environmental damage.

Brazil's worst oil disaster was in 1975, when an oil tanker from Iraq dumped nearly 8 million gallons of crude into Guanabara Bay. The oil washed up on Rio's famous beaches, which were closed for nearly three weeks.