San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fires Prompt Safety Overhaul

In the wake of two fatal chemical fires in late 2006, the government has been scrambling to get a handle on chemical and fuel safety in Costa Rica. But as officials work to prepare new regulations and legislation, it appears that the problem of hazardous waste disposal will remain unresolved for the time being.

Because Costa Rica’s government has no safe containment site for chemical waste, the disposal of such substances is often left to the discretion of the companies involved. Lax supervision means waste leaks into Costa Rica’s environment, and a lack of options has meant that when the government is forced to deal with hazardous materials after spills or other emergencies, it has resorted to sending them to landfills. Officials, however, say the Health Ministry is now shying away from this practice.

Costa Rica’s most recent and possibly worst-ever chemical disaster erupted Dec. 13, 2006, when an explosion at a chemical storage plant outside the Caribbean port of Moín quickly became a raging fire with flames billowing stories high. A massive black cloud of toxic smoke was visible for miles around and across the country on special live news coverage. Two workers died from burns sustained during the inferno (TT, Dec. 15, 2006).

Several weeks earlier, on Oct. 29, two siblings ages 5 and 13 burned to death in the backseat of their mother’s car after a gas spill at the Shell station where they were filling up became an explosive blaze (TT, Nov. 3, 2006).

In both cases, investigators have traced the causes of the accidents to workers ignoring safety procedures, and have found the disasters were made worse by a lack of proper or functioning safety equipment. The gas station, for example, lacked an emergency shutoff switch, while the chemical plant had containment dikes – meant to keep a fuel spill or fire from spreading – that were smaller than required and had deteriorated.

The response has been public: last week, in front of a throng of journalists, Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles announced the launch of a nationwide inspection of every gas station in Costa Rica (TT, Feb. 2). During the first week of inspections, officials shut down a gas station in Heredia, north of San José, for various violations. The station where the siblings died was also ordered to remain closed.

Last month, officials with the Public Health Ministry began conducting a diagnostic of every business and industry that deals with possibly hazardous chemicals (including petroleum), evaluating their emergency preparedness and working on new legislation and safety regulations.

According to Héctor Chaves, head of the National Insurance Institute’s Firefighters Corps, one serious problem Costa Rica faces is how to dispose of the waste and residue left after chemical accidents, as well as that which is produced in the standard operations of many industries.

“This country does not have a center to deposit dangerous materials,” Chaves said. The disposal of chemical waste is left up to individual companies, he explained. And while many companies are responsible, and properly treat or store their materials, hazardous waste often ends up in Costa Rica’s conventional dumps or, even worse, in its rivers and even city streets, he said.

On Jan. 16, children in the southern San José district of Desamparados discovered an abandoned barrel that, when opened, released toxic gases. Approximately 12 of the kids were hospitalized for symptoms including eye and throat irritation, dizziness and vomiting.

“In this case, what do we do with this chemical product? We don’t even know what it is,” Chaves continued.

The fire chief said his department responds to about 12 chemical emergencies a month, including minor incidents such as gas leaks.

“They are few, but they can have a serious impact,” he said, adding that, while improperly disposing of chemical waste is against the law, he has never seen a company fined or otherwise punished for it.

Arturo Navarro, an industrial chemist with the Public Health Ministry’s Department of Human Environment Protection, told The Tico Times that the supervision of chemical handling in Costa Rica is “absolutely not” sufficient, and the country “needs to improve a lot more.”

Navarro confirmed that chemical waste disposal is left up to companies, which are monitored by regional Health Ministry offices.

Private companies are expected to present an operations plan to the local authorities approximately twice per year that describes how they deal with their materials. However, the Health Ministry official said, “we need to be more aggressive with monitoring.”

“Some companies have been burning (their chemical waste), which is not in accordance with international standards,” he added. Certain chemicals, especially those that contain chlorine, release dangerous byproducts into the air when burned, specifically dioxins and furans, which are carcinogens and neurotoxins. The Stockholm Convention, to which Costa Rica is a party, requires nations to curb production of dioxins and furans, he explained.

In Costa Rica, chemical disposal falls into the government’s hands in cases of chemical accidents, Navarro said. In that case, officials have two options: store them in a landfill, or burn them in a giant oven at the Holcim cement factory in Cartago, east of San José. That’s what authorities did with the various chemicals left over from the Moín fire.

Holcim, a Costa Rica subsidiary of the Swiss-based company of the same name, burns 10,000 tons of environmentally harmful waste, confiscated drugs and confidential documents yearly (TT, Dec. 16, 2005). Because the plant’s ovens must reach extremely high temperatures (between 900 and 2,200 degrees Celsius, or 1,652 and 3,992 degrees Fahrenheit) to manufacture cement, they are ideal for destroying waste because the elevated temperatures eliminate the nasty byproducts.

However, Navarro said, not all chemicals can be disposed of at Holcim. “A lot” of chemical waste is sitting in Costa Rican landfills, he said.

“We are trying to lessen the use of landfills. It is not a suitable option,”Navarro said.

Currently, the La Carpio landfill in western San José run by EBI Berthier de Costa Rica, a subsidiary of EBI Berthier in Canada, is the only dump in the country authorized to take what is called “special waste,” such as chemical leftovers, which must be specially treated and stored in “an impenetrable cell,” Navarro explained.Costa Rica’s other landfills, however, are already overflowing and many are under orders to close, but can’t because of a lack of options (TT, Oct. 13, 2006).

“There’s no more room,” Navarro said.

While acknowledging Costa Rica’s shortcomings, Navarro was quick to point out the efforts being made in the current administration to improve the country’s handling of dangerous chemicals.

In what appears to be a direct response to the Moín fire – though officials were vague – Navarro’s office is in the midst of a total overhaul of the supervision of all companies that deal with chemical substances, and classifying the materials according to a variety of attributes, such as whether they are flammable, corrosive or toxic, as well as examining the companies’ locations. The Moín disaster took on much larger proportions when it was discovered a spring that supplied water for 20,000 area residents was fewer than 75 meters from the plant.After daily monitoring, the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) declared the water suitable for human consumption more than a month later (TT, Jan. 26).

Navarro said he had found “around 20 highly dangerous companies,” but did not provide further details.

Each company is being asked to present a report on its management of chemicals as well as emergency response plans and safety infrastructure. That information will be compiled in a report to be presented within weeks to a new government committee.

Officials from the Health and Environment ministries are also working to prepare a bill that would set new regulations and procedures for the handling of liquid, gas and solid chemical waste, and create both a regulatory agency and a monitoring agency to oversee and enforce the new rules.


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