Mexico fuel pipeline blast kills 89, witnesses describe horror

Military personnel watch as flames engulf an area after a ruptured fuel pipeline exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo, Mexico, near the Tula refinery of state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), January 18, 2019 in this handout photo provided by the National Defence Secretary (SEDENA). National Defence Secretary/Handout via REUTERS

By Anthony Esposito

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Officials now say that at least 89 people were killed after a pipeline ruptured by suspected fuel thieves exploded in central Mexico, authorities said on Saturday, as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast.

Forensic experts filled body bags with charred human remains in the field where the explosion occurred on Friday evening by the town of Tlahuelilpan in the state of Hidalgo, in one of the deadliest incidents to hit Mexico’s troubled oil infrastructure in years.

One witness described how an almost festive atmosphere among hundreds of local residents filling containers with spilled fuel turned to horror as the blast scattered the crowd in all directions, incinerating clothing and inflicting severe burns.

Forensic technicians arranges bodies at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Forensic technicians arranges bodies at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

A number of people at the scene told Reuters that local shortages in gasoline supply since Lopez Obrador launched a drive to stamp out fuel theft had encouraged the rush to the gushing pipeline.

“Everyone came to see if they could get a bit of gasoline for their car, there isn’t any in the gas stations,” said farmer Isaias Garcia, 50. Garcia was at the site with two neighbors but waited in the car some distance away.

“Some people came out burning and screaming,” he added.

To root out the theft, Lopez Obrador in late December ordered pipelines to be closed. But that led to shortages in central Mexico, including Hidalgo, where local media this week said more than half of the gas stations were at times shut.

Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad said 73 people were killed and 74 people injured in the explosion, which happened as residents scrambled to get buckets and drums to a gush at the pipeline that authorities said rose up to 23 feet (7 meters) high.

Fayad said the condition of many of the injured was deteriorating, and that some had burns on much of their body. Some of the most badly injured minors could be moved for medical attention in Galveston, Texas, he added.

Hidalgo Attorney General Raul Arroyo said 54 bodies were so badly burned that they could take a long time to identify.

The crackdown on fuel theft has become a litmus test of Lopez Obrador’s drive to tackle corruption in Mexico – and to stop illegal taps draining billions of dollars from the heavily-indebted state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Video on social media showed people filling buckets from the pipeline during daylight hours in the presence of the armed forces before the blast.

But Lopez Obrador, who vowed to continue the crackdown on theft, defended the army in the face of questions about why soldiers failed to prevent the tragedy.

“We’re not going to fight fire with fire,” the veteran leftist said. “We think that people are good, honest, and if we’ve reached these extremes … it’s because they were abandoned.”

In the aftermath, soldiers and other military personnel guarded the cordoned-off area that was littered with half-burned shoes, clothes and containers.

More than 100 people gathered at a local cultural center on Saturday afternoon, hoping to get information about loved ones who disappeared. Officials posted information about DNA tests for identification and a list of people taken to hospital.

A resident reacts at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

A resident reacts at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero


Lopez Obrador said the army had been right to avoid a confrontation due to the large number of people seeking to make off with a trove of free fuel – a few liters of which are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.

Blaming previous governments for neglecting the population, he said the priority was to eradicate the social problems and lack of opportunities that had made people risk their lives. He rejected suggestions the incident was linked to his policy.

Still, Lopez Obrador had vowed to tighten security in sensitive sections of the oil infrastructure, and the ruptured pipeline was only a few miles away from a major oil refinery.

Pemex’s Chief Executive Octavio Romero told reporters that there had been 10 illegal fuel taps in the same municipality in the last three months alone. Neither he nor the president said exactly when the valves to the pipeline were closed.

Relatives of victims stood huddled together, some of them crying, after the massive blast. Much of the rush to siphon off fuel and the chaos of the explosion was captured on mobile phones and began quickly circulating on social media.

Mexican media published graphic pictures of victims from the blast site covered in burns and shorn of their clothes.

Local journalist Veronica Jimenez, 46, arrived at the scene before the explosion where she said there were more than 300 people with containers to collect fuel.

“I saw families: mother, father, children,” she told Reuters. “It was like a party…for a moment you could even hear how happy people were.”

When the blast hit, people ran in different directions, pleading for help, some burned and without clothing, she said.

“Some people’s skin came off…it was very ugly, horrible, people screamed and cried,” she said. “They shouted the names of their husbands, brothers, their family members.”

Grief-stricken family members blocked access to the field for over half an hour, saying they would not let funeral service vehicles pass until they were told where the dead were being taken.

Lopez Obrador has said his decision to close pipelines has greatly reduced fuel theft, but the death toll has raised questions about potentially unintended consequences.

“There was a gasoline shortage, people one way or another wanted to be able to move around,” said local farmer Ernesto Sierra, 44. “Some even came with their bean pots.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Writing by Dave Graham and Christine Murray; Editing by Alexander Smith and Marguerita Choy)

Governor declares massive Southern California methane leak an emergency

A massive gas leak that environmental activists say is sending potentially devastating amounts of methane into the air above Los Angeles was declared an emergency situation on Wednesday.

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. made the announcement in a news release, outlining a variety of steps designed to protect public health, stop the leak and prevent future ones from occurring.

Methane has been leaking from the Aliso Canyon storage facility since Oct. 23. The Southern California Gas Company that owns the facility has been working to stop the leak ever since, though letters that appear on the company’s website indicate that workers don’t expect to seal the leak until late February or late March as it involves drilling some 8,000 feet underground.

Last month, Brown’s office released a letter he wrote to the company’s chief executive officer in which the governor called the response “insufficient.” The emergency declared Monday directs the Southern California Gas Company to take “all necessary and viable actions” to stop the leak.

The governor’s declaration came two weeks after the Environmental Defense Fund released an infrared video in which methane could be seen billowing from the facility at a purported rate of 62 million cubic feet every day. Approximately 28 million cubic feet of oil was released during the entire 87-day Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report.

The governor’s order instructs the company to ensure it’s withdrawing as much gas as possible from the facility so that it doesn’t escape into the air, captures whatever methane is leaking, and comes up with a plan to stop the leak if the company’s current plan of drilling a relief well and pumping it full of cement and other fluids doesn’t fix the problem or the leak gets worse.

The Environmental Defense Fund said the leak at its current rate had the same long-term impact on climate change as driving 7 million cars, as methane is much better at trapping heat.

The leak also had short-term impacts, as the governor’s office said Wednesday that “thousands of people” have relocated because of the leak. The Los Angeles County Public Health Department had previously ordered the company to relocate residents who were affected by the leak free of charge. The Los Angeles Unified School District also temporarily closed two schools near the leak after “an increasing number of health complaints” was disrupting the education process, according to the district’s website. Those students are being relocated to other schools.

Tests conducted by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment shows the leak “does not appear” to present a toxic threat to the public, according to the California Office of Emergency Services (CALOES), though the smell of the gas has caused nausea and headaches. Odorants are added to methane to help the public detect leaks. Those odors, while they may not be toxic, could still lead to “lasting health impacts” like eye or respiratory damage, CALOES said.

The governor’s order directs the state to convene a panel of medical experts to look into concerns about public health. It also instructs the state’s Public Utilities Commission to make sure that the Southern California Gas Company pays for the costs of the leak, and outlines more strict practices for gas storage facilities, including daily wellhead inspections to help detect leaks.

Southern California Gas Company CEO Dennis Arriola issued a statement after the declaration, saying the company would continue to work to stop the leak and lessen the gas’s impact on the neighborhood of Porter Ranch, which has been hit particularly hard by the smell, and the air.

“Our focus remains on quickly and safely stopping the leak and minimizing the impact to our neighbors in Porter Ranch,” Arriola said. “SoCalGas reaffirms our prior commitment to mitigate the environmental impact of the actual amount of natural gas released from the leak. We look forward to working with state officials to develop a framework that will achieve this goal.”

Gas Leak Sends Large Amounts of Methane Billowing Into Los Angeles Air

An uncontrolled methane leak at a southern California storage facility is silently sending a devastatingly large amount of the gas into the air every day, an environmental group says.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently released an infrared video that shows gas billowing from an underground well at the Aliso Canyon storage facility near Los Angeles. The group says the leak has released 62 million cubic feet of methane into the environment every day since it initially began on Oct. 23, an extreme amount that could have significant climate implications.

For comparison, a federal report on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill indicates about 210 million gallons of oil, or some 28 million cubic feet, was released during the entire 87-day saga.

The extent of the leak concerns the Environmental Defense Fund for several reasons.

First, the organization says that methane is more harmful to the environment than other gases. It’s much better at trapping heat and has about 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.

Secondly, the extent of the pollution is very high. The Environmental Defense Fund says the gas spewing into the air has the same long-term effect as the daily emissions of 7 million cars.

Third, the leak has been going on for about two months and there is no immediate end in sight.

The Southern California Gas Company, which owns the Aliso Canyon facility, wrote a letter to those impacted by the leak saying that the capping process likely won’t be completed until late February or late March. The company wrote it has to drill a relief well more than a mile underground, and it will ultimately permanently seal the leak with a mix of fluids and cement.

In addition to long-range climate impacts, the leak is also disrupting the lives of residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood that’s just a few miles from the storage facility. The Environmental Defense Fund says more than 1,000 people have lodged complaints with local authorities about the pervasive smell of the gas. Odorants are often added to methane to help people detect leaks.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department ordered the gas company to “offer free, temporary relocation” to anyone affected by the smell, according to an official department letter published by Save Porter Ranch, a group that aims to reduce industrialization in the region.

The Environmental Defense Fund says about 1,000 people have taken advantage of that, and another 2,500 are looking to relocate. On its website dedicated to the leak, the Southern California Gas Company wrote it is also offering a variety of air purification services to help abate the smell for those who don’t want to leave, though it maintains the air is safe to breathe.