Fire Rekindles Safety Concerns

May 11, 2007

The flames have subsided, but questions about the fire that incinerated an Alajuela chemical plant last week are still raging, as concerned residents and the Ombudsman’s Office struggle to find out why such disasters continue to happen – and why there seems to be no process in place to prevent them.

The inferno, which raged for five hours the night of May 1 before a team of 195 firefighters was able to snuff it out, spewed crimson flames almost 100 meters in the air in a dramatic light show that kept thousands of Ticos up late into the night, glued to their television sets.

The entire situation, which played out in a potentially life-threatening comedy of errors, bore striking resemblance to the fire in Moín, in the Caribbean province of Limón, that burned a chemical plant there to the ground late last year (TT, Dec. 16, 2005).

The Moín disaster – which threatened the water supply of more than 20,000 area residents – was precipitated by a lack of emergency planning and proper safety equipment, according to official reports (TT, Feb. 9).

More than a week after the fire in Alajuela, northwest of San José, neither the Public Health Ministry nor the Environment Ministry would identify the chemicals involved in the disaster. Health Ministry spokesman Royden Alvarado told The Tico Times yesterday that investigators are preparing a report on the incident.

Esteban Ramos, head of the engineering department of the National Insurance Institute’s Firefighters’ Corps, said the fire began when sparks from outdated electrical equipment ignited flammable vapors. The situation quickly spiraled out of control.

Upon arrival, firefighters discovered the nearest fire hydrant was five kilometers away, Ramos reported, with hardly a hint of surprise in his voice.

“Fire hydrants in Costa Rica are like orphans. Nobody owns them,” he said, explaining that no institution has been charged with developing or maintaining the national system of hydrants, so most of the country suffers from a lack of hydrants, and many of the existing ones are in need of repair, or functionally useless.

Thus, he said, firefighters have learned to not count on them.

A statement from the Ombudsman’s Office, released two days after the fire, indicates Costa Rica’s emergency management program suffers from more than just a lack of water.

In a stinging, three-page indictment, the office charged that the system lacks “constant supervision by the institutions in charge of the country’s health and environment” and furthermore, little is being done to change the situation.

The result, according to the Ombudsman’s Office, has been more than 20 firerelated emergencies in chemical plants in just the past five years, leading to contamination, the release of toxic gases and a situation that has threatened the well-being of “hundreds of inhabitants.”

Public Health Minister Maria Luisa Ávila agrees there is a problem – but told The Tico Times this week she feels the Ombudsman’s Office has misplaced blame.

“We’ve spent years creating these problems, we can’t be expected to solve them overnight,” she said. She added that many of the country’s chemical factories, including the Alajuela plant, were built long before the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) was established in 1995, which means that many were never required to submit environmental-impact studies.

Many other factories, she said, operate illegally, without permits, and are unknown even to the Health Ministry. Municipalities, she added, unaware and lacking zoning plans, often allow residences to be built next door to chemical plants –creating situations like those experienced in Moín and Alajuela.

Ávila insists that the ministry is working hard to map the country’s chemical plants, and revise their safety procedures and equipment, but the process is slow, largely due to a lack of funding and staffing – a problem also cited in the Ombudsman’s Office report.

“We can only do so much with the resources we have,” she said.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office report and Ramos, of the Firefighters’ Corps, such simple additions as fire hydrants in the vicinity of the factories would go a long way toward mitigating risks.

“We arrived at the scene six or seven minutes after the fire first started – in plenty of time. If we had had access to water through hydrants, we would almost certainly have controlled the fire right away,” Ramos said. Instead, the fire spread to a furniture store next door, which also burned down.

The Ombudsman’s Office report specifically calls for the passage of a law, proposed in 2002, that would organize the country’s haphazard system of hydrants, and ensure adequate coverage throughout the nation so “emergencies can be dealt with in a rapid and effective manner.”

Despite the obviously urgent need, said Ramos, the law, first proposed by former president Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) when he served as a legislator (1998-2002), has barely gained traction in the assembly – and still flounders there, even in the face of a recent rash of major fires, including the one in Moín and another that killed two children at a Shell gas station in Escazú, west of San José (TT, Nov. 3, 2006).

Ávila said inspections on chemical plants throughout the country will begin in earnest next week, and warned there are other problems aside from faulty fire hydrants or lack of emergency plans.

“There are so many things we need to consider. For example, if we start to close factories, what happens to the families that depend on them for work?” she asked.

In the meantime, no one claims Costa Rica is safe from another such catastrophe in the near future.

“I have no doubt that there are other chemical plants in the same situation as the one that just burned,” Ramos said.


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