Fire at Oil Facility Endangers Cuba’s Fragile Electrical System

HAVANA (AP) — A deadly fire that started at a large oil storage facility in western Cuba spread Monday and threatened to plunge the island into a deeper energy crisis by forcing authorities to shut down a plant key thermoelectric

Flames engulfed around dawn a third tank that firefighters had tried to cool down as they struggled to combat the massive blaze that began just days after the government announced scheduled blackouts for the capital of Havana.

At least one person has been killed and 125 injured, with another 14 reported missing since lightning struck one of the facility’s eight tanks Friday night. A second tank caught fire on Saturday, causing several explosions at the facility, which plays a key role in Cuba’s electrical system.

“The risk that we had announced happened and the fire in the second tank compromised the third,” said Mario Sabines, governor of the western province of Matanzas, where the facility is located.

Firefighters sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend to cool them down, but failed to stop the fire from spreading. On Monday afternoon, the government power company announced that the fire had forced the closure of a thermoelectric plant that provides power to the western region of the island after running out of water, according to the official Cubadebate website. No further details were immediately available.

The governments of Mexico and Venezuela sent special teams to help extinguish the fire, with water cannons, planes and helicopters fighting the fire from various directions while military construction specialists erected barriers to contain the oil spills.

Local authorities have warned residents to wear masks or stay indoors because of the smoke engulfing the region, which can be seen from the capital of Havana, more than 100 kilometers (65 miles) away. Authorities warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances.

Most of the injured were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, and five of them remain in critical condition. A total of 24 remain hospitalized. Over the weekend, authorities found the body of a firefighter as relatives of the missing gathered at a hotel to await news of their loved ones.

Sabines and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said it was impossible to search for the missing firefighters given the high temperatures.

The fire at the Matanzas supertanker base in the city of Matanzas prompted authorities to evacuate more than 4,900 people, most of them from the nearby Dubrocq neighborhood. The facility’s eight huge tanks contain oil that is used to generate electricity, although it is unclear how much fuel has been lost as a result of the flames. The first tank to catch fire was at 50% capacity and contained almost 883,000 cubic feet (25,000 cubic meters) of fuel. The second tank was full.

Jorge Piñon, director of the Energy Program for Latin America and the Caribbean at the University of Texas, said officials should inspect tank walls that aren’t on fire to make sure they haven’t been affected. He also warned that the government must be careful before putting the system back into operation once the fire is out.

“If not, there will be another catastrophe,” he said. “Unfortunately, this will take time.”

Piñon pointed out that the facility receives Cuban crude -operating an oil pipeline that crosses the center of the country- to be transferred through small tankers to the thermoelectric plants that produce electricity. It is also the unloading and transshipment center for imported crude oil, fuel oil and diesel, and Cuba produces only half the fuel required to keep its economy afloat.

The fire comes as Cuba is in deep economic crisis and facing frequent power cuts amid a sweltering summer, problems that helped spark unprecedented anti-government protests last year. Authorities have not provided a preliminary estimate of damage.

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Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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