Catastrophe in Key Cuban Industrial Area in Matanzas

Column of smoke covers parts of the sky in Matanzas city and is spreading westward. According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the incident began at the end of the afternoon on August 5th when lightning struck one of the eight oil storage tanks in the western city. Photo: Yoelkis Torres

By Luis Brizuela (IPS-Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – Cuban firemen, rescue workers and experts are fighting to put out the fire at oil storage tanks in the western city of Matanzas, with support from international forces and supplies, a tragedy with unknown economic and environmental damage up until now.

The disaster makes the energy crisis on this Caribbean island even worse, with shortages of fuel, breakages and repairs needed at many of the country’s old power plants, which have led to blackouts over ten hours long in many towns.

Experts in extinguishing oil fires and several tons of fire-fighting chemicals and equipment have come from Mexico and Venezuela since the night of Saturday the 6th, after the Cuban Government called for international support and advice from countries with experience in oil fires.

Other countries such as Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile offered aid in solidarity.

Citizens and citizen-led organizations, both in and outside Cuba, began to collect donations, mainly medicine and medical supplies to support health workers.

Without preliminary assessments of the damage – which is considered to be significant -, right now, efforts are mainly focussing on extinguishing the fire and rescuing missing persons.

This incident is the greatest recent catastrophe in the country of 11.2 million inhabitants, and it comes a month after a fire that left considerable damage to one of the boilers at the Lidio Ramon Perez power plant, which generates the most electricity in Cuba, in Felton, in the eastern province of Holguin.

Before that, on May 6th, an explosion attributed to a gas leak left the emblematic Hotel Saratoga in Havana in ruins practically, with a death toll of 47 people dead and almost a hundred injured.

The island is also being hit by a more severe economic crisis, that has been ongoing for the past three decades, which the COVID-19 pandemic, the US embargo and a process of slow economic reforms that proposed modernizing the country, have contributed to.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the first explosion took place at the end of the afternoon on August 5th when lightning struck one of the eight oil storage tanks, located on the outskirts of the western city of Matanzas’ bay, a city with approximately 140,000 inhabitants and 90 kms east of Havana.

When the lightning struck, the tank had 26,000 m3 of national crude oil that burned completely.

The fire spread to a second tank on the morning of Saturday 6th and it collapsed close to midnight on Sunday 7th, which led to an intense explosion and a column of smoke several hundreds of meters high, according to what Cuban TV cameras are showing.

On the morning of Monday the 8th, the fire of a third tank was confirmed, which isn’t spilling oil yet, but makes the situation a lot more complex.

The reservoirs are at the limit of their full capacity, with 50,000 m3 of oil, according to official information.

“We were scared about these different explosions, here at home. We saw the lightning and column of smoke from the rooftop. Seeing part of the city lit up with reddish tones from the fire was Dantesque,” Claudia Hernandez, a university student living in Matanzas, told IPS.

These oil storage tanks are one of the most important points for oil storage and distribution in Cuba.

The Antonio Guiteras power plant stands close to the enclave which is one of the most powerful in generation terms with 280 MW, although it doesn’t seem to be in danger from the fire at this moment. [Editors Note: 14ymedio reported it has gone off line on Monday due a lack of water.]

In Cuba, 95% of electricity produced comes from burning fossil fuels, including heavy national crude oil, with a sulphur API content of between 7-18 degrees.

According to official statistics, Cuba is consuming somewhere over 8 million tons of oil per year, 4.4 million of which are used for electricity generation.

Close to 40% of this fuel is imported, mainly fuel and diesel, at a higher price on the international market.

The smoke column, which has reached between 4-6 kms high, now covers part of Matanzas city’s skyline, is spreading westward, and has been present in the north of the Mayabeque, Artemisa provinces and in Havana. Photo: Yoelkis Torres

Damage

Up until Monday, a member of Cuba’s Fire Brigade had lost his life, while 17 people are still missing.

Out of the 125 injured, 101 were discharged and 24 patients are currently being seen at hospitals in Matanzas and Havana.

Approximately 5,000 residents in neighboring areas to the disaster were evacuated, staying with family members, as well as at state institutions that have been set up.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel, prime-minister Manuel Marrero and part of the Council of Ministers are supervising actions on the ground in the city, linked to the fact that some sources are beginning to call it the worst disaster of its kind in Cuba’s recent history.

Like in extraordinary situations that arise from hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, drought or chemical leaks, Cuba activated its Civil Defense System, which is organized on both a national and local level, to protect the population and economy.

For six decades now, this system has proven to be effective in minimizing the loss of lives and putting the country on the path to recovery with prevention, preparation actions, surveillance, early warning and danger forecasts, variable and risk asssessment, as well as guiding the general population.

Experts are warning that as long as the oil continues to burn, the quantity of soot particles and other pollutants in the air will continue to rise.

Thus, they are warning about a possible increase in acid raid in areas where clouds with high concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen stay, as well as other compounds, like those reported in different points across western Cuba over the weekend.

The Ministry of Public Health has stated that no patients have been admitted with smoke inhalation at medical units up until now, or more severe asthma symptoms or allergies.

Nevertheless, they are recommending that people, especially those who suffer from allergies, protect their airways with masks and don’t expose themselves to rain.

With winds coming mostly from the east, the column of smoke which has reached between 4-6 kms high, is spreading westward to the north of Mayabeque and Artemisa provinces and the Cuban capital.

Like in extraordinary situations that arise from hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, drought or chemical leaks, Cuba activated its Civil Defense system, which is organized on both a national and local level, to protect the population and economy.  Photo: Yoelkis Torres

Solidarity

The Cuban Government has expressed thanks for condolences and support from different organizations and people across the world, including the US Government, “which offered technical advice, from experts for due coordination,” the vice-minister of Foreign Relations, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, confirmed on his Twitter account, on Saturday.

“We want to make it clear that the US law authorizes US institutions and organizations to provide aid and disaster response in Cuba,” the US Embassy in Havana communicated on its social media.

In January 2017, the US and Cuba signed an agreement in Havana to coordinate efforts to prevent, contain and clean possible oil spills and of other toxic substances in the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Strait.

While the current fire is taking place on Cuban soil, the agreement is a positive framework for cooperation between the countries separated by just 90 nautical miles (167 kms) that is the Florida Strait, but whose damaged relations are marked by the embargo imposed by the US Government on Cuba since 1962, which prevents any rapprochement.

The incident has triggered a wave of solidarity among the Cuban population, from people donating blood voluntarily, or private workers offering their own means of transport to transport families of those injured for free, and providing food.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times



8 thoughts on “Catastrophe in Key Cuban Industrial Area in Matanzas

  • Now in the street in Cuba the rumor is that this was a self sabotage that the Cuban dictatorship did to create a crisis and the Cubans abroad with families still in Cuba send money the fire got out hand and that is the reason they refused the USA aid. Hum from that dictatorship I won’t doubt anything horrible and sinister.

  • No matter in what part of the world one inhabits, no matter what one’s political affiliation is, in any catastrophic tragedy as we have witnessed in Cuba‘s oil tank storage fire, the following is what we fear and hope the loss of life, the persons injured, and the citizens displaced are minimized.

    “Up until Monday, a member of Cuba’s Fire Brigade had lost his life, while 17 people are still missing.

    Out of the 125 injured, 101 were discharged and 24 patients are currently being seen at hospitals in Matanzas and Havana.”

    I am sure our collective hearts go out to those brave men and women of all nationalities who risk their lives fighting this fire and having to deal with its devastating aftermath.

  • It is about time the U.S. Government took the embargo off Cuba and resumed normal relations with them. Cuba is not a threat to the U.S. but could be if they do not resume friendly relations, as Russia ,but mostly China have been investing in Cuba for many years.

  • interesting that in the last year or so there has been a wave of “fires, explosions” at various facilities including hotel, tobacco plants, generation plants etc

  • Scott – what a stupid and insensitive remark at this difficult time for Cuba. I appreciate what a serious impact this has on the people of Cuba and expect that they will get the support that they need from all of our countries.

  • Time has come for the President of Cuba to board a flight to Washington, let’s get this settled, been going on for far to long.

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