Following the devastating chemical fire last week in the Caribbean province of Limón, tens of thousands of people in the province’s central canton this week continued to receive irregular water service while authorities investigated the extent of the public health and environmental damage.
Many are calling the fire one of the worst disasters in Costa Rica’s recent history, and the government declared the matter a national emergency Tuesday. The emergency decree frees up government funds and allows the National Emergency Commission (CNE) to coordinate government agencies’ actions as they try to stem environmental contamination and monitor the health of area residents and emergency workers who fought the blaze.
The fire erupted Dec. 13 at Químicos Holanda’s chemical storage plant in Moín, which contained solvents and caustic soda. The 10,000-square-foot facility was located less than 75 meters from a spring that supplied 20,000 people with water, a situation Health Minister María Avila this week called “more than inadequate.” Avila said the company will no longer be allowed to operate at the site.
As much of the country watched on live TV, tanks of highly flammable chemicals such as toluene and xylene exploded into an inferno that reached several stories high and sent a toxic plume wafting over the province (TT, Dec. 15).
Three plant workers with serious burns were transferred to the San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José, where two – Geovanny Hernández, 32, and Greivin Cortés, 24 – died from their injuries. According to hospital staff, the third burn victim, Albert Sánchez, 33, was in “stable but delicate condition” at press time.
Hector Chaves, head of the National Firefighters Corps, told The Tico Times the fire was most likely sparked by welding work near a tanker truck being filled with flammable chemicals. He said the National Insurance Institute (INS), which includes the Firefighters Corps, is still investigating the cause of the fire, and expects to submit its findings to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office in January.
The fire chief added that the company did not have an adequate system for containing a chemical spill. The containment dikes that surround the chemical tanks were deteriorated and smaller than INS regulations require, he alleged.
Agents from the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) are investigating whether charges should be filed for manslaughter, or causing injuries or environmental damage, and Avila said the company could be sanctioned if it did not follow emergency protocol.
Avila said Tuesday that the Public Health Ministry has ordered Químicos Holanda to shut down its second plant, located north of San José in Heredia, because it has not complied with operational changes ordered in August. The changes were requested after the ministry discovered various problems at the plant, including the way the company classified its products.
The Tico Times was unable to obtain more information about the orders by press time. The company has not made any public statements since the fire, and did not return multiple phone calls from The Tico Times this week or last.
Teams including technicians from the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and specialists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the Universidad Nacional (UNA) this week tested soil, water and air quality in the region to determine to what extent the disaster affected the environment. At a press conference for the signing of the emergency decree Tuesday, Environment Vice-Minister Jorge Rodríguez said it was still too soon to assess the extent of the damage caused by not only the fumes and leaked chemicals, but also from the chemical foam used by firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
The day of the fire, workers put up dikes to try and contain water in the immediate area that was polluted by chemicals spilling from the plant, but not before some chemicals leaked out. Officials are currently evaluating how extensive the pollution is and are pumping and filtering the water that is being held by the dikes. Rodríguez said that plants and trees in the area have also absorbed chemical pollution and will have to be cut down and removed from the area.
Meanwhile, a team of 12 officials from the Public Health Ministry traveled to the region Wednesday to check the health of 8,000 residents.
Health Minister Avila said Tuesday possible short-term health effects of exposure to the chemicals or their fumes are respiratory and skin problems, and occur within 72 hours after exposure.However, she said,Costa Rica’s Social Security System (Caja), which runs the nation’s socialized health-care system, had not reported an increase in reports of such problems, or cases that could be attributed to the accident. The minister said long-term effects depend on the intensity and length of time of exposure, and could include miscarriages and cancer.
Residents all over the province had their water service affected after the AyA shut off an important pumping station the day of the blaze, fearing it was polluted. The springs that feed the pumping station are 50-75 meters from the site of the chemical fire, and AyA Executive Director Ricardo Sancho said it is likely the water source has been contaminated.
The springs supply water for 20,000 limonenses, half of whom began receiving a limited amount of water from a different water system after the fire. The other 10,000 have been depending on regular neighborhood visits from 10 water tankers.
Sancho said Tuesday that all 80,000 residents of the central Limón canton would be affected as the institute began a canton-wide water-rationing program. He estimated that in the best-case scenario, if the spring is not contaminated, water service could be back to normal in 30 days. If not, he estimated it would take 45-60 days to have new sources of water up and running to supply the affected residents.
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said Wednesday that the best-case scenario was looking more likely after water studies conducted late Tuesday and early Wednesday showed contamination levels in the water supply had decreased significantly.
Limón resident Marco Machore, representing the Development Association for Ecology, has filed a lawsuit before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) alleging that by allowing the company to operate in such close proximity to the Moín springs – which Machore says were declared a protected area in 1980 –Health Minister Avila violated the Constitution. Tuesday, Avila said ministry officials were studying the suit, but provided no further comment.
Asked Wednesday whether the company will be held responsible for the disaster and its effects, Minister Arias, who visited the scene of the fire last week, gave a somewhat vague answer.
“From the information I have, the company has collaborated in everything the government has asked,”Arias said during a press conference at Casa Presidencial. Asked for a more thorough explanation of past interactions between the Health Ministry and the company, he said only that Avila is following the law strictly and “it will be a continuing process.”
CNE spokeswoman Rebeca Madrigal characterized the company’s willingness to cooperate in a much different fashion.
“They originally said they were going to cooperate in everything,” she said. “But apparently they have delayed and delayed, and because of the vulnerability of the environment, the government acted.”
When the plant in Moín was built approximately 20 years ago, it did not have to submit an environmental-impact report for government approval, as the law has required since 1995.
Químicos Holanda became a subsidiary of the German-based corporation Brenntag in 2000. In September, a similarly disastrous fire occurred at a Brenntag chemical storage facility in Caldas de Reis, Spain.
Tico Times reporters Blake Schmidt and Katherine Stanley contributed to this report.