The fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base: a highly avoidable disaster

The official version on the causes of the incident at the Matanzas Supertanker Base states for now that the fire there it was declared around 7:00 PM on Friday, August 5, when lightning struck one of the facility’s fuel storage tankswhich was later described by the authorities as an “accident”.

By coincidence, On May 25, another electrical discharge would have impacted the outlet line of the Antonio Guiteras Thermoelectric Plant.located just two kilometers from the point where the biggest petrochemical disaster in the history of Cuba has just occurred.

That event, also accidental according to the authorities, caused the abrupt disconnection of that power plant from the national electrical system, and with it, the worsening of blackouts on the island.

Reporting on this event, the journalist from the official radio station Radio Rebelde, José Miguel Solís, pointed out that the electric discharge hit “the lightning rod of the Guiteras starting line. According to what workers who witnessed the event told us, the lightning struck the lightning protection equipment, but such was the force that it destroyed the lightning rod.”

On that occasion, the event did not go further and the Guiteras once again transmitted energy to the national distribution system. But, Is it by chance that two such similar events occur in such a short period of time in locations so close to each other? Aren’t lightning rods sufficient protection for industrial facilities that are so strategic for the economic vitality of a country? Shouldn’t the lightning strike in Guiteras serve as a warning to review the safety protocols of all the surrounding industries?

Based on these questions, it is worth asking if the current disaster could have been avoided. Because warnings is what has been left over in Matanzas in the last four years.

In October 2018, the official Cuban press reported two oil spills in the bays of Matanzas and Cienfuegos. Coincidentally, the first occurred at the Supertanker Base itself, when a breakdown during the unloading of a fuel shipment caused the spillage of about one hundred cubic meters of fuel into the bay.

As a result of these events, which involved a long and laborious operation to clean up the remains, the Government announced that it would install containment barriers in the places most vulnerable to oil spills.

The importation of such protection elements was announced by Miguel Díaz-Canel during a meeting in which he requested that “places where fuel is handled have adequate containment barriers and all the conditions that allow immediate action are created.”

At the meeting itself, the Minister of Science, Technology and the Environment, Elba Rosa Pérez, said that the Ministry of Energy and Mines “already foresaw in its plan the importation of means of protection, including the barriers that will be placed in the most vulnerable sites.

It is unknown if such protection elements exist and fulfilled their function during the recent incident in Matanzas.

Other sites in the same province have suffered accidents of this nature, not at all common a few years ago on the Island. Thus, in October 2021, a gas and oil spill during a repair maneuver at Pozo Yumurí 201, very close to the coast and with accumulated years of exploitation, forced the erection of barriers so that the spill would not reach the sea.

The state-run Cuba-Petroleum Union (CUPET) said then that “as a result of the increase in pressure, the joint of the valve installed in the upper part of the well collapsed, which caused the spill of gas with water and oil to the surface.”

In July of the same year, dozens of residents of Varadero were evacuated due to an “alarming spill” of fuel on a town avenue. The authorities later said that there were no damages to the beach of the largest resort on the island or to the Bay of Cárdenas.

In June 2021, approximately 20,000 liters of fuel ended up in rivers after the collapse of a fuel container belonging to the Transportation and Mechanization Services Company (Tranzmec) in the Matanzas municipality of Limonar.

And in April 2019, a breakdown in the Jesús Rabí sugar mill affected the streets of CalimeteMatanzas town, with the spill of 268,000 liters of oil. As a result of that event, the inhabitants of the place complained about the contamination with which they have to live.

“Many houses here have their own wells for water supply and there are already several neighbors who complain that they cannot consume that water because it is contaminated with oil,” said Lázaro Puentes, a resident of Calimete.

For her part, a neighbor who preferred not to identify herself, considered that the event occurred due to negligence and lack of maintenance of the plant. “That tank was in very poor condition, no inspections go to the plant and at this time it is grinding. People here have complained everywhere and this is not new, because it’s been decades since fuel has leaked into the ground,” he said.

In view of that bouquet of antecedents, Is it credible that the Super Tanker Base had all the operating conditions that would have prevented a disaster like the current one? Will there be an official report this time about what happened and concrete measures to prevent something like this from happening again, or will we be facing another alleged accident that is the result of chance and, therefore, likely to repeat itself sooner rather than later?

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