Fire From Puerto Rico Oil Explosion Spreads, More Evacuations OrderedOct 24, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
Puerto Rican officials have ordered more evacuations following yesterday's explosion at the Caribbean Petroleum Corp. storage facility near San Juan. According to Reuters, the fire sparked by the massive explosion continues to burn, and has spread to even more fuel storage tanks. The fire is one of the largest ever experienced in Puerto Rico.
Yesterday's explosion occurred around 12:30 a.m. According to the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, the blast produced a shock wave equivalent to a 2.8 magnitude earthquake. The explosion was so strong that it tore up a nearby highway, and shattered windows on homes.
At first, 11 of 40 tanks at the facility that stored jet fuel, bunker fuel and gasoline were destroyed. But according to Reuters, the fire has now spread to six other tanks. At least 130 firefighters and National Guard troops are working to bring the inferno under control, but it is expected that it will take several days to extinguish the fire.
Yesterday, at least 350 people living downwind of the fire were evacuated. That evacuation has now been expanded to include the Sabana Amelia neighborhood, where around 1,000 to 1,500 people live. Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno has declared a state of emergency in San Juan and four surrounding towns, Reuters said. Schools throughout San Juan were closed yesterday. Residents who have not been evacuated have been asked to stay indoors.
A state epidemiologist who monitors asthma told the Associated Press that the smoke is "extremely toxic" and that people with asthma would will "definitely hyper-react to this." A spokesperson for Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board said that the presence of invisible gases such as carbon monoxide and sulfur was adding to the danger. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the air with handheld devices and probing whether any fuel spilled into the nearby ocean, the Associated Press said.
A huge column of black smoke continues to rise from the Caribbean Petroleum facility. For now, winds are pushing the smoke and fumes out to sea, but according to Reuters, the National Weather Service is watching for any changes that could push the smoke into neighborhoods and require more evacuations. There are also concerns that rain could mix with the smoke, producing toxic rain.
Puerto Rican officials are preparing for the possibility that mass evacuations may be needed. According to the Associated Press, the governor has said a large stadium has been prepared to accommodate some 30,000 people who live in the area if necessary.
It is still not known what may have caused the Caribbean Petroleum explosion. According to Reuters, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a six-person team to San Juan to help with the investigation Yesterday, a local official for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said a special team from the U.S. mainland would also investigate the explosion. However, that investigation would not begin until the fire at the plant was extinguished.
Media outlets have also reported that agents from the FBI were on the scene. Local police and the FBI were said to be looking into graffiti found after the blast in a San Juan highway tunnel with the message: "Boom, fire, RIP, Gulf." While he would not draw conclusions as to the meaning of the graffiti, a police official said the message was "a concern."