From: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press
Published May 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Mexican Environmental Official Slams Pipeline Maintenance, Says Closure of Ducts Possible

MEXICO CITY — A plan by Mexico's state-owned oil company to fix problem pipelines is "totally insufficient," and authorities may consider closing high-risk ducts threatening spills or explosions, the head of Mexico's environmental protection agency said Thursday.


Such closures could knock refineries out of service and cause gas shortages, and would probably be considered a national security issue requiring a presidential order, Attorney General for Environmental Protection Jose Luis Luege said.


"We are willing to order the closure of pipelines that are classified as very high risk," Luege said at a news conference where he criticized an offer by the Pemex oil company to provide urgent maintenance on seven of the 35 ducts identified as in need of urgent repair.


Luege said the company must fix them all, but Pemex argued that Congress hasn't approved enough money for that.


The problem has become more urgent in the past six months, with reports of more than a dozen spills and explosions involving aging pipelines and other facilities.


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"This investment, while important, is totally insufficient," Luege said. "We demand, in the strictest terms, that Pemex perform maintenance on all 35 ducts."


Luege said that closing even one of the main ducts due to safety concerns would be a last-ditch decision that could cost him his job, because it could knock as many as three Mexican refineries out of production, causing gasoline shortages.


"This would have to be a national security decision ... by the president himself," Luege. "It's quite likely I wouldn't be around (after issuing such an order), because of all that a closure implies."


In the past, the closest authorities have come to a major shutdown was an order to close one small duct for about a month for repairs.


Luege also said his agency has ordered Pemex to remove thousands of cubic yards (meters) of soil contaminated in a Dec. 22 spill that released about 5,000 barrels of oil into the Coatzacoalcos River at Nanchital, 325 miles (525 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City.


About 40 percent of the country's 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) of pipelines are damaged or corroded. Authorities say Congress has approved only about one-third of the annual funds needed to maintain and upgrade the most antiquated ducts.


Many of those pipelines were built during the last oil boom, in the 1960s and 1970s.


Assistant Attorney General for Environmental Protection Jose Ramon Ardavin said some ducts, pumping stations and valve systems are so antiquated that "workers at one point have to call operators further down the line by radio, to tell them to close valves."


"It's the whole system, not just the pipelines," Ardavin said.


Source: Associated Press


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