Cleaning up a subterranean fuel spill with the potential to poison the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people is never simple – but it gets much harder when, despite the urgency of the case, red tape and legal protections of private property tie authorities’ hands and cause delay after delay.
According to authorities leading the response to a gas-station leak that contaminated the water table in Barreal de Heredia, north of San José, in 2004, the spill, once estimated to have the potential to render undrinkable the water for 320,000 people, is no longer spreading, and all but one area well is now clean.
But fears of trespassing or damaging private property have meant that throughout the process, authorities have had to wait for the gas-station owners’ permission to take certain steps, according to Public Health Ministry official Ricardo Morales, who heads the inter-institutional government commission working to clean up the leak.
“I wish the response could have been faster, but it was commensurate with the risk we’ve detected,” Morales told The Tico Times this week. “I think the response has been good on the part of the authorities… it’s just a part of how slow things move in the government in general.”
He emphasized that while the owners of the Auto Servicio Zona Franca, the gas station allegedly responsible for the spill, have been cooperating, it’s not clear whether government officials would have had access to the property if the owners had refused them entry.
“It has been a problem,” he said of gaining access. “There was a lot of work that could not be done until the OIJ (Judicial Investigation Police) had gathered all their proof. Then, in order to make sure we are not trespassing, the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) asked the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office whether we could go into the land or not. There has been no response. We have been actually working because the gas station has allowed us to do it.”
Even with the owners’ cooperation, the commission has still been left waiting for a green light for certain steps of the cleanup process.
For example, visiting specialists from the Atlanta, Georgia, office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told authorities March 23 during a presentation at Heredia’s National University (UNA) that immediate reactions to the spill should have included removing the underground tanks at the site, since spilled fuel often gathers in the soil underneath.
However, an AyA official stood up and told the speakers that removing the empty tanks isn’t yet an option because it might violate Costa Rican law.
The specialists, Jacqueline Jack and Lee Thomas, appeared taken aback by this news.
“The tanks must be removed,” Thomas reiterated.
Morales confirmed that the gas-spill commission is waiting for permission from the Judicial Branch before removing the tanks.
“I believe this has been more a question of caution on the part of the commission, not doing anything that could damage private property, before we undertake any remediation process,” he said, adding that according to tests done by the commission and the OIJ, the primary source of the spill was a faulty pipeline, not the tank itself.
Though the commission does plan to remove the tank eventually to clean the soil underneath, cleaning the affected water has been the top priority.
In the meantime, the institutions on the commission – including the AyA, Health Ministry, Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), the Public Services Company of Heredia (ESPH), the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and others – have monitored approximately 30 wells in the vicinity of the spill; drilled exploratory wells to test hydrocarbon levels in the underground water supply and soil; drilled additional wells to be used for extracting hydrocarbons from the water and soil; and conducted geophysical studies to map the plume, or area of contamination.
The plume is not growing, Morales said, and is limited to the area under and immediately around the Auto Servicio Zona Franca gas station.
Now, the commission is in the process of buying equipment including pumps that will be used to remove, then clean, polluted water and soil, he explained. Carlos Vargas, an AyA engineer, said this process is expected to take approximately eight months to complete.
EPA specialist Jack, who, along with her colleague Thomas, accepted an invitation from the Costa Rican Atomic Energy Commission to spend last week visiting the site and formulating recommendations, praised Costa Rica for being “the first Central American country to come forward to clean up a gas station with a hydrocarbon leak.” However, the two visitors also urged quicker reactions.
“In general, it’s necessary to take more aggressive actions than those (taken) so far,” Thomas told a crowd of students, interested citizens and some of the authorities responsible for cleaning up the spill.
OIJ spokesman Francisco Ruiz told The Tico Times this week that the judicial investigation of the leak is still “in process” and that investigators have no further information to share with the press at this time.
According to Jack, laws surrounding hydrocarbon spills in the United States hold gas-station owners responsible for leaks. If a spill threatens public health, the government can issue an emergency order for the gas station to dig up the leaking tank and begin cleanup at once; if the owners refuse, the next step is jail.
“There’s not much discussion at that point,” she said.
In addition, if gas station owners fail to clean up a leak and the government has to step in, authorities then charge the gas station three times what the cleanup actually cost – an effective tool to motivate private companies to take care of their own messes, she said.
In Costa Rica, where the government had never before handled a subterranean fuel leak of this nature, the path has been much more convoluted.
After Heredia Public Services discovered the leak during routine water sampling in September 2004, the inter-institutional commission was formed and asked the National Emergency Commission (CNE) to declare a state of emergency. The request was refused because the CNE considered the case did not meet judicial criteria necessary for such a declaration (TT, June 24, 2005).
Only when the request was finally honored in late 2005 were government funds freed up to hire foreign experts for the cleanup process (TT, Nov. 11, 2005).
Morales explained this week that although the government originally planned to hire a foreign company because of lack of expertise within Costa Rica, only one company made a bid for the job. According to AyA engineer Vargas, the commission evaluated the bid, but eventually decided AyA could perform the work because of the knowledge it had gathered through its investigations thus far, and that it would be better to allow Costa Rican technicians to gain expertise.
AyA took over in order “to generate national experience in this field, because it is probable that we’ll have other spills,” Vargas said, adding that AyA and the other institutions involved in the cleanup are keeping careful track of their expenditures as part of the ongoing judicial process. In past cases of environmental damage, companies found responsible by the courts have sometimes been required to reimburse the government for such costs.
This spill exposed not only government red tape, but also problems with the national gas station inspection system. At the time the spill was discovered, only one MINAE inspector was responsible for monitoring the country’s 346 stations. Oscar Porras, director of MINAE’s Transportation and Fuel Commercialization Department, told The Tico Times the inspector was “prone to a heart attack” because of his whopping responsibilities (TT, June 24, 2005). Earlier this year, the government conducted a mass inspection of all gas stations following an explosion at a gas station in the western San José suburb of Escazú that killed two young children; the tragedy revealed the station had no emergency shut-off switch.
As a result of those inspections, MINAE ordered 20 stations to close because of poor safety conditions, improper permits and other irregularities (TT,March 9).
Ultimately, all gas stations should move toward secondary encapsulation of tanks, in which underground tanks are enclosed within a second underground chamber, Jack, of the EPA, told her UNA audience. That allows inspectors to perform a quick visual check of the tank for rusting or leaks, and contains any leaks that do occur.
“When you put a tank in the ground, it’s not a question of, ‘Will this tank leak?’” Jack said. “It’s a question of ‘When will this tank leak?’”
What Are Hydrocarbons?
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) specialist Jacqueline Jack, who gave a brief history of hydrocarbon spills as part of her presentation at National University (UNA) last week, the victims of the first known case of hydrocarbon poisoning were none other than the Oracles of Delphi.
A series of women filled the role of Pythia, priestess of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece, from approximately 1400 B.C.-381 A.D., according to National Geographic News (nationalgeographic.com). Jack explained that the priestess would sit above a sacred spring inside the Temple of Apollo, inhale the fumes the well released, and enter a trance during which she would tell the fortunes of her many visitors.
Recently, researchers determined the well was contaminated by hydrocarbons; because hydrocarbons are highly corrosive, the fumes the women inhaled corroded synapses in their brains. This usually resulted in hallucinations or a trance-like state, but sometimes caused brain damage and death. This finding was the result of a four-year study by WesleyanUniversity geologist Jelle de Boer, National Geographic reported in 2001.
Hydrocarbons, chemical compounds composed of hydrogen and carbon, are one of only two mineral substances that occur naturally as liquids on the surface of the earth, Jack explained. Water, the other mineral, is highly stable, but hydrocarbons – particularly those that occur in complex rings, such as the solvents benzene, toluene and xylene – are unstable and, as a result, can be flammable, corrosive and carcinogenic. Petroleum, natural gas, plastics, paraffin, waxes, solvents and oils generally contain hydrocarbons.
More recent hydrocarbon-related deaths included a rash of childhood leukemia cases in Woburn, Massachusetts, from the 1960s through the 1980s, eventually traced to benzene, toluene and xylene in the public drinking wells, Jack said.
Cleaning up hydrocarbon spills in water requires pumping the water out of the ground and separating it from its contaminants; a common method used to clean up contaminated soil is to spread it on an impermeable fabric, add microorganisms and expose the soil to sun, which breaks down the substance into its components, hydrogen and carbon. In the case of fuel leaks, however, authorities must also test for fuel additives, which require different cleanup methods.