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Chemical Disaster Still a Mystery

Thousands of liters of noxious chemicals burned during an inferno that raged at a Central Valley chemical plant earlier this month, some mixing with water and possibly polluting a nearby river, wells and an important aquifer in the region.

But 24 days after the disaster no one knows for sure – bickering and foot-dragging by government ministries has stalled the environmental assessment and clean-up process at the Suministros Industriales plant in Alajuela, northwest of San José.

Even worse, according to critics, the situation is not unusual.

Disorganization, red tape and a lack of coordination between government agencies has plagued Costa Rica’s handling of chemical-related disasters for years, according to Federico Paredes, president of the Costa Rica Association of Public Health, a non-governmental organization based in San José.

“What Costa Rica does not have is a single authority, or a national plan, that is dedicated to dealing with these issues,” he said.

“The government, at a high level, needs to begin to collaborate if we are going to prevent these accidents from happening.”

Despite appearances by Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles and Public Health Minister María Luisa Ávila at the site immediately following the fire and the passage of more than three weeks, government officials have yet to agree on basics, such as what kinds of chemicals were present at the site and how to clean them up (TT, May 11).

“Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the Health Ministry to provide us with an official list of chemicals and amounts at the site. Until we have that list, we cannot complete our report and begin the clean-up process,” said María Guzmán, director of the Environmental Investigation Department at the Environment Ministry, a tinge of annoyance perceptible in her voice during a phone interview Monday.

Guzmán lacked specifics but provided The Tico Times with a preliminary list of chemicals that included a petroleum solvent known as Varsol, glycerin, propane, polyester resin and unspecified solvents.

All of these chemicals have the potential to contaminate water supplies or worse, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site, and some, like Varsol, can have more serious implications.

In 1968, a Varsol spill in Miami, Florida, threatened a reservoir and was since declared a toxic SuperFund clean-up site under a federally funded program designed to deal with “uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites,” according to the EPA.

Both the Alajuela site and a similar one in the Caribbean port of Moín, where a chemical plant located near an important potable water source erupted in flames last December, would likely qualify for such a program, but as activist Paredes points out, Costa Rica lacks this critical high-level organization.

“Our agencies all work alone, without coordinating with each other. This leads to a lack of monitoring and control of these chemical plants, and accidents like the ones we’ve seen recently,” he said.

The Environment Ministry is charged with assessing the contamination and developing a plan to remove the chemicals from the site, but because the Health Ministry granted the plant’s initial permits, only it has access to the exact quantities and types of chemicals that were stored there.Minister Ávila told The Tico Times that the information is available, and said she believed it had already been provided to the appropriate sources – despite Guzman’s indications to the contrary.

Ávila added that the incident is under investigation, including allegations that the chemical plant’s permits may have been granted illegally by Ministry of Health officials – hence the apparent disorganization and difficulties identifying the chemicals involved.

Slow Progress

The day after the May 1 fire, children rode bikes and played atop hardened chemicals that resembled the surface of the moon.

So far, little has been done to remove these chemicals. According to Guzmán, the Environment Ministry and the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) have begun monitoring 12 wells found downhill from the plant, but no one has assessed the status of a nearby river, which she said likely received a dose of chemicals via sewage channels and runoff the night of the fire.

More than one million liters of water were used to fight the chemical fire, according to the National Firefighters Corps, and much of that mixed with chemicals and eventually found its way into the river.

Guzmán acknowledged the waterway is already “heavily polluted,” and said it is too late to study the effects on the river – as rains have likely already dispersed the chemical waste in the river, which eventually feeds into the Pacific Ocean.

“Because it happened on a holiday, we weren’t able to take samples or inspect the river,” she said, referring to Costa Rican Labor Day, on May 1.

According to Mario Leiva, president of the Environmental Tribunal, an administrative court under the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), which is handling the environmental damages lawsuit against the company, the government ministries must assess damages and eventually, clean up the site. The costs associated with “environmental harm” are to be paid by the business, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

Groundwater contamination is a major concern in Alajuela, as it was in Moín, when a similar fire and resulting chemical spill threatened the water supply of more than 20,000 people (TT, Dec. 22, 2006).

“This is exactly the same situation we have seen in Moín,” Leiva said.

Leiva, who has visited the Alajuela site twice since the fire, said the level of contamination and the extent of clean up will depend on several variables, including the types of chemicals involved, the amount of rain that has since fallen and the permeability of the soils.

“The problem in these cases is that it can take years until the contamination reaches the aquifers. In the meantime, the tests are technical, and very expensive,” he said.

What Next?

The week after the fire in Alajuela, the Ombudsman’s Office decried the lack of vigilance and control over the country’s chemical plants in a stinging, three-page indictment that charged the system “lacks constant supervision by the institutions in charge of the country’s health and environment,” and furthermore, little is being done to remedy the situation (TT,May 11).

The accusations followed revelations that the plant lacked basic safety equipment, and that the nearest fire hydrant was 5 kilometers away from the site.

Health Minister Ávila insists efforts are under way to improve the system and prevent another catastrophe.

She said safety inspections of other chemical plants in the country began last week with reviews of sites in the eastern province of Cartago, and she insists neither Moín nor Alajuela is likely to see another permit in the near future.

She believes municipalities must restrict permits for chemical plants near important water or residential zones – adding another branch of government to the already convoluted mix dealing with chemical plant oversight.

“We are working with all of the country’s municipalities to ensure that such permits are no longer granted in important water reserve areas, or in residential zones,” she said.

For his part, Paredes, of the Costa Rica Association of Public Health, believes more serious, high-level reform is required – particularly if Costa Rica is to compete in a post U.S. free-trade environment.

“We need a national plan for dealing with chemical substances. We have fallen behind other countries,” he said, adding that most other Central American countries have plans in place for dealing with chemical plants and related emergencies, and have proven their effectiveness.

“Every year there are more chemical factories in this country, and still we do nothing. The time to act is now,” he said.


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