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Officials Draft Plan to Combat Chemical Fires

After snuffing out two raging chemical fires in six months and hosing down the resulting storm of media attention, officials Wednesday announced a draft plan to reduce the risk of accidents at the nation’s chemical plants.

The plan, announced by a coalition of government institutions, comes at a critical juncture – one month after the Suministros Industriales chemical plant in the northwestern Central Valley city of Alajuela burnt to the ground, raining chemicals on the surrounding neighborhood and raising questions about contamination, site clean-up and government oversight (TT, May 11, 25).

That disaster came just months after a huge chemical fire at the Químicos Holanda plant in the Caribbean port of Moín late last year killed two workers and endangered the water supply of thousands of nearby residents (TT, Dec. 22, 2006).

Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles, who leads the new coalition, said the problem is relatively new to Costa Rica, and needs to be dealt with urgently.

“It’s well known that we’ve had very disorganized development in recent years, and chemical contamination of our aquifers and rivers is one of the results,” he said. “This plan seeks to better regulate and control the industry – and also to reduce pollution,” he said.

The coalition, which includes the Public Health Ministry, Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), National Firefighters’ Corps, National Emergency Commission (CNE), National University (UNA) and the Chemistry Engineers’ Association, among others, will identify key risk areas, inspect each plant in the country, and ensure all are properly prepared for accidents.

“We’ve already begun implementing the plan – and have begun inspecting factories throughout the country,” said Health Minister María Luisa Ávila told the press at the coalition’s introduction Wednesday morning.

Officials identified the Central Valley, the Caribbean coastal province of Limón and Cartago, east of San José, as risk areas because of their high concentration of chemical plants.

“As we inspect, if we find plants that are not complying with our new plan, we will shut them down,” Ávila said.

The first part of the plan involves a most basic activity: counting the number of chemical plants in the country. Officials estimate there are approximately 450, but Dobles said the inventory is still ongoing, as officials believe many operate without permits.

He added that there are 3,000 other industrial buildings that harbor tanks of petroleum-based products, which would also be administered by the new plan.

Darner Mora, director of water quality for the AyA, said his staff would work with the NationalUniversity to standardize a testing and monitoring system for all the country’s aquifers – which would assist in the early detection of a potential spill.

Ávila said it is critical that the government review the plans of each existing plant – explaining that most have safety plans, but few have offered them to officials at government ministries that would be charged with dealing with an emergency.

“These plans must be known to all,” she said, adding that it’s equally important that the Health Ministry invest extra resources in “improving the technical experience of our engineers to inspect the plants.” Dobles said more people would be hired to staff the program.

“This is not our first meeting – nor will it be our last. There has been very little discussion in the past about chemical safety in this country, and it is our responsibility to begin the process,” Dobles said.

He did not, however, say when the plan would be completed.



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