MOÍN, Limón – Flames several stories high and a massive tower of dense black smoke visible throughout the Caribbean coastal plane kept firefighters working for nearly 11 hours Wednesday after fire broke out at the chemical plant Químicos Holanda Costa Rica S.A. in this port city.
At press time at least one person had died from burns suffered at the site, and authorities had proclaimed the incident the biggest disaster of its kind in Costa Rica in more than a decade.
The fire – which caused four tanks of commercial solvents to explode, according to officials on the scene – and the toxic plumes of smoke forced more than 300 residents to evacuate to temporary shelters in nearby communities.
At least 20,000 people in the province of Limón were temporarily left without water after a pumping station was shut down.
Authorities are investigating whether a nearby aquifer, which supplies a large portion of Limón’s drinking water, is contaminated.
At press time, the cause of the fire, which began at approximately 11:15 a.m., was still unknown.
The Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) dispatched a team of technicians Wednesday afternoon to evaluate the damage that leaking chemicals has caused to the surrounding ecosystems, Environment and Energy Minster Roberto Dobles told The Tico Times. According to a statement from the National Emergency Commission (CNE), this is the first accident of its kind in Costa Rica, comparable only to a fire at Limón’s oil refinery caused by an earthquake in 1991.
The company that owns the plant, Químicos Holanda, has not had any accidents or complaints in Costa Rica until now, Dobles said, adding that the company never filed an environmental-impact report because it was founded before the 1995 law that made such reports mandatory.
Químicos Holanda has been a subsidiary of the German-based corporation Brenntag since 2000. Last September, a disastrous chemical fire occurred at a Brenntag facility in Caldas de Reis, Spain.
Químicos Holanda personnel did not return phone calls from The Tico Times by press time, though company representative Oscar Saravia told Channel 7 TV News at a meeting in Limón that the company is ready to help the government with the public health and environmental consequences of the incident.
A team of 110 firefighters fought the blaze until around 9:45 p.m., when they finally extinguished the flames.
Several firefighters received medical treatment because of cramps, smoke inhalation and other symptoms, but the only burn victims were people who were present when the fire first began, Carballo said. Three patients with serious burns were flown from Moín to hospitals in San José, according to Marcos Alfaro, a spokesman for the Red Cross.
Channel 7 reported yesterday afternoon that one of the victims, Geovanny Hernández, who turned 32 the day of the fire, died at 9:50 a.m. yesterday at San Juan de Dios Hospital in the capital. Greivin Cortes, 24, with burns on 80% of his body, was in intensive care, while Albert Sánchez, 33, was approaching stable condition.
People across the country watched the crisis live on television, perhaps none more anxiously than the evacuees who worried that their vacated homes were in harm’s way.
“They haven’t told us anything about how long we might be here,” Rocío Chacón, whose 6-year-old son Haniel clung to her side, told The Tico TimesWednesday at the sports complex in Limón where she and other residents of the communities Villa del Mar 1 and 2 were taking shelter. As CNE officials and police officers handed out foam mattresses and kids ran to and fro, a group of adults kept their eyes on the news. Regularly scheduled programming was cancelled to provide ongoing coverage.
As evacuees returned to their homes yesterday, government investigations into the cause and effects of the fire swung into full gear.
In addition to the MINAE investigations, Ricardo Sancho, the executive director of National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), told The Tico Times technicians are looking into the possible contamination of the aquifers. He added that the institute is bringing water in tanker trucks to residents without water while working to connect some residents to an unaffected water system.
Sancho said the country does not have a contingency plan for this specific type of disaster, only more general emergency plans.
“When these plants were founded, there wasn’t the same clarity about the importance of this water source,” Sancho said, adding that he believes more specific emergency plans should be created.
According to University of Costa Rica (UCR) chemist Ariel Alfaro, the chemicals present a serious danger to the environment, since one liter of any sort of fuel or petroleum derivative can contaminate 35,000 liters of water. Firefighter Corps Director Héctor Chaves confirmed that a “very small” amount of chemicals from the plant had leaked into a nearby river, which passes through an estuary and spills into the ocean.
There were reports of dead fish in nearby waterways.
Tico Times reporters Leland Baxter-Neal,Amanda Roberson and Katherine Stanley contributed to this report.