San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fuel Spill Threatens Thousands

A diesel fuel slick of unknown proportionscontinues to pollute the underground water supplyof Barreal de Heredia and is slowly seepingtoward other Central Valley reservoirs – eventhough more than nine months have elapsedsince authorities first discovered the problem inthe district north of San José.According to authorities, the government’sresponse to the country’s first significant subterraneanfuel spill, which they say has the potentialto affect the health of hundreds of thousands ofpeople, has been characterized by bureaucratic setbacksthat have prevented the hiring of foreignexperts with the cleanup knowledge Costa Ricaapparently lacks.Lack of personnel is another problem: a singleinspector is responsible for ensuring safety standardsare met at all of the country’s 650 gas stations, althoughanother inspector may soon be hired.The Barreal spill could eventually affect as many as320,000 people if the fuel advances through the watersupplies of the suburbs of Belén and Cariari, in theprovince of Heredia, and into the water source that suppliesthe western San José communities of Pavas, Escazú and Alajuelita, according to NatalieMontiel, chief of water quality and operationsfor the Heredia Public ServicesCompany (ESPH).ESPH created a special commission todeal with the problem, discovered in aBarreal reserve well that remains shutdown and had been closed off for a yearand a half before the alarming finding.The company discovered the fuel contaminationin September 2004 during a routinesampling of its waters, which showed ahydrocarbon concentration of 58 milligramsper liter – 57.99 milligrams more than theconcentration allowed by the standards ofthe European Union, which Costa Rica followsfor lack of its own hydrocarbon parameters,Montiel explained.Soil samples from an area southwest ofthe gas station allegedly responsible forthe spill, Auto Servicio Zona Franca, showground contamination levels of 90 mg perkilogram, she said.According to Carlos Briceño, presidentof the Environmental Tribunal, an administrativecourt of the Ministry ofEnvironment and Energy (MINAE), thegas station cannot yet be held accountablefor the spill, because the tribunal has notconfirmed its responsibility.ACCORDING to Ricardo Morales,from the Public Health Ministry’s risk managementoffice, the gas station closed immediatelyafter the water pollution was discoveredlast year and the Environment Ministryordered it to shut down.Oscar Porras, director of MINAE’sTransportation and Fuel CommercializationDepartment, said he ordered the gasstation to close temporarily because it wasoperating without meeting various requirements,such as a license and sanitation permits.The station must remain closed untilauthorities determine whether it caused thespill, he said.The Tico Times was unable to obtain aresponse from the gas station owners.PORRAS said the gas station shouldnot bear all the responsibility for the spill.“You can’t just blame the gas stationowners. These situations are accidents.They happen possibly because of leaks inthe pipelines or gas tanks, and you cannotsee these things,” Porras said.According to the expert, mechanicalengineers and laboratory professionals runpressure tests on gas tanks by filling them upwith water or air, which leak out throughany fissures like air from a pricked balloon.“Results from the Barreal gas stationtests (previous to the spill) were fine, andyet they were no guarantee. Steel canbecome corroded from one day to thenext,” he said.A major contributor to this type ofaccident might be the fact that one engineer,Eliot Palavicini, 24, is assigned toinspect all the service stations in the country,he added.Palavicini currently handles an estimated7,000 cases accumulated over thepast three years, 460 of which are servicestation inspections.His other responsibilities includeinspecting gas distribution trucks, shipsand storage tanks for institutions such asuniversities and hospitals.He’ll soon have company. MINAEplans to hire another engineer to beginduties in late July, and has purchasedanother car for inspections, according toPorras.“This will make our engineer lessprone to having a heart attack. Needless tosay, this is a very stressful position, evenfor a 24-year-old,” he said.ESPH water expert Montiel said“administrative obstacles and bureaucracy”have also caused problems for thecommission of nine institutions formed byESPH to deal with the fuel spill inHeredia.The commission includes representativesof the National Water and SewerInstitute (AyA), the University of CostaRica (UCR), the National Oil Refinery(RECOPE), the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute (ICE), the Ministry of PublicHealth, the Environment Ministry, theBelén Municipality, ESPH and theNational Subterranean Water andIrrigation Service (SENARA).The commission tried to declare a stateof emergency when the spill was discovered.However, the National EmergencyCommission (CNE) refused to declare astate of emergency – a decision to whichMontiel attributes the delays in cleaningup the spill.However, the board of directors of theNational Emergency Commission (CNE)considered the situation did not “meet certainjudicial criteria necessary to declarean emergency,” according to the CNEpress office.MORALES, from the HealthMinistry, said, “If a disaster is not unstableand does not require immediate attention,it is not considered an emergency.”Basically, this means the institutionsinvolved had to resort to hiring expertsthrough contracting processes that, alongwith Costa Rica’s inexperience in dealingwith a subterranean gas spill, have generateddelays, Morales explained.According to Morales, two steps areinvolved in resolving the situation afterforming the commission. First, the commissionmust hire a Costa Rican expert tostudy and direct the cleaning operation;second, the Water and Sewer Institute musthire a foreign company to clean up thespill, because companies with the requiredexpertise are not available in Costa Rica.While candidates for the foreign companieshave already been chosen, Moralessaid he cannot reveal their names becauseAyA has not yet drawn up a contract fortheir hire.CLEANING up the spill will involveextraction of the contaminated water fromthe well’s superficial layers, where it accumulates,and removal of the soil surroundingthe spill, Morales said.Although the dimensions of the spillwill only be known when the foreignexperts start cleaning, it is predicted thatthe fuel will move west with the subterraneancurrents, potentially threatening thePuente de Mulas water source that suppliesPavas, Escazú and Alajuelita.Experts agree the fuel’s subterraneanmovement is extremely slow, however.“Diesel has the advantage that it travelsvery slowly and tends to get trapped inthe ground,” Morales told The Tico Times.“For the moment, we are worried, notalarmed,” he said. “Diesel can cause bloodproblems, kidney infections and cancer,but you would practically need to swallowit pure to develop any of these effects.”MINAE shut down another gas stationin Alajuelita this month for lackingthe proper sanitation permits and reportedlyspilling fuel into a stream near thestation, according to Guillermo Floresfrom the Ministry of Health.Flores, in charge of handling the case,said the ministry ordered the extraction ofall fuel from the station’s tanks and hadthem filled with 32,000 liters of water.“We first became aware of the problemwhen neighbors complained about a stronggas smell in the area. Although we did notevaluate the size of the spill, we believewe handled it in time and prevented healthproblems in the community. Fortunately,the stream where the gas spilled did notcontain potable water,” he said.

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