Oil facility fire jeopardizes Cuba’s frail electric system

HAVANA (AP) — A deadly fire at a large oil storage facility in western Cuba spread Monday, threatening to plunge the island into a deeper energy crisis as it forced authorities to shut down a major thermoelectric plant.

Around dawn flames engulfed a third tank that firefighters tried to cool as they struggled to battle a raging blaze in the western province of Matanzas that broke out days after the government announced planned blackouts for the capital, Havana.

“I am very concerned about the children, the elderly, the economy of Matanzas and the country,” said 28-year-old resident Deleen de la Caridad. “We don’t know how this will end.”

At least one person has been killed and 125 injured, with another 14 reported missing since a light struck one of the facility’s eight tanks on Friday night. Another tank caught fire on Saturday, causing multiple explosions at a facility that plays a key role in Cuba’s electric system.

“The risk we announced happened and the third tank was compromised by the flames of the second tank,” Matanzas Governor Mario Sabines said.

Alexander Avalos, lieutenant colonel chief of Cuba’s fire department, told television Cubana that by late Monday, four tanks had been compromised.

“The fire has taken a lot of intensity,” he said.

Firefighters sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend, but failed to stop the fire from spreading. On Monday afternoon, the state-run power company announced that the fire had forced the shutdown of a thermoelectric plant supplying electricity to the western region of the island, according to the official Cubadebate website. Further details were not immediately available.

The governments of Mexico and Venezuela have sent special teams to fight the blaze, with water cannons, planes and helicopters battling the blaze from multiple directions as military construction experts set up barriers to contain the oil spill.

Local officials warned residents to wear face masks or stay indoors as plumes of smoke spread across the region, which could be seen from the capital, Havana, more than 65 miles (100 kilometers) away. Officials have warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other toxic substances.

Most of the injured were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, and five of them are in critical condition. A total of 24 people are admitted to the hospital. Over the weekend, authorities found the body of a firefighter as relatives of those still missing gathered at hotels to await news of their loved ones.

Sabins and Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel said the rising temperatures made it impossible to find the missing firefighters.

A 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 Dubroque area. The facility’s eight large tanks contain oil used to generate electricity, although it was not clear how much of the fuel was lost in the flames. The first tank to catch fire was at 50% capacity and contained approximately 883,000 cubic feet (25,000 cubic meters) of fuel. The second tank was full.

Jorge Pion, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, said officials should monitor the walls of non-fire tanks to make sure they weren’t affected. He also warned that the government should be careful before bringing the system back online after putting out the fire.

“If not, there will be another disaster,” he said. “Unfortunately, it will take time.”

Piñon noted that the facility receives Cuban crude oil — which runs an oil pipeline that runs through the center of the country — transferred by small tankers to a thermoelectric plant that generates electricity. It is also the unloading and transshipment center for imported crude oil, fuel oil, and diesel, producing about half of the fuel Cuba needs to keep its economy running.

The fire comes as Cuba struggles through a deep economic crisis and faces frequent power outages during the scorching summer, problems that helped spark unprecedented anti-government protests last year. Officials have not released a preliminary estimate of the damage.


Associated Press videographer Osvaldo Angulo in Matanzas, Cuba, contributed.


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

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