The fire that blazed since Wednesday at a Pemex oil refinery in the port of Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, was finally extinguished early yesterday morning, but the effects on the surrounding area, potentially an environmental catastrophe in the making, are only now being assessed.
High acid levels have been found in the “black rain” reported earlier this week in the city and neighboring municipality of Tehuantepec after an analysis by the state Environment Secretariat, which described the rain as toxic.
The rain also contained sulphur oxides produced by the fuels burned during the fire at the Antonio Dovalí Jaime refinery.
No official warning was issued about the rain although residents of the region warned each other through social media to remain indoors.
Environment Secretary Jose Luis Calvo Ziga said the municipal government of Salina Cruz and Pemex should have identified the radius of contamination caused by the blaze and the subsequent rainfall and that residents should have used face masks for the duration of the blaze in order to minimize effects on the respiratory system.
After the first indications of polluted rainfall, people should have taken steps to protect water supplies and discard any water that had come in contact with the rain. All pets and livestock should have been kept away from the rain, too.
But other than evacuating close to 3,000 residents from the area surrounding the refinery, nobody warned the people of Tehuantepec and Salina Cruz in a timely manner about the risks and what protection measures they should take.
The evacuees are now back in their homes, which they found covered in ash.
“Black ash was what we found in our backyard,” said Alfonso López, who lives south of the oil refinery.
It is not yet clear when fishermen will be able to return to work. A vast area of the coast at Salina Cruz and in the Chontal and Huave regions was polluted with oily substances that leaked from the refinery.
Unofficial reports have stated that the blaze consumed over 500,000 liters of crude oil that leaked from one of 14 storage tanks. No reports have been issued with regard to how much fuel might have spilled from the refinery and into the surrounding water.
What has been calculated is that over 10,000 fishermen could be affected.
The leader of a state fisheries organization stated that one of the main species affected by the oil spill is shrimp, “but the pollution will interrupt the reproductive cycle of all species.”
Anselmo López Villalobos said Pemex would compensate economic damage to fishermen by giving them free fuel, a practice he said was frequent. “Every year we receive donations in the form of fuel as compensation for the damage caused.”
The refinery was shut down for five days, initially due to flooding after tropical storm Calvin made landfall on Monday, and then because of the fire, which caused the death of a firefighter on Wednesday.
Pemex says the refinery produces 24% of all the fuels used in the country, including both types of gasoline, diesel and turbosine, among others.