From: Miguel Hernandez
Published January 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Federal Officials To Sue after Gas Leak from State Oil Company on Mexico's Gulf Coast

VERACRUZ, Mexico — An unknown amount of liquid gas leaked from a pipeline operated by Mexico's state oil company and spread to at least two rivers in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people, officials said Tuesday.


The leak marks the fourth accident to occur in just over a month in equipment operated by Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. It happened about 10 p.m. Monday after a 12-inch (30-centimeter) pipeline ruptured, Ranulfo Marquez, deputy director of civil protection for Veracruz state, told The Associated Press.


Marquez said officials had determined that the 20-year-old pipeline cracked because of a lack of maintenance, which also was blamed for some of the other recent Pemex accidents. Pemex officials recognize that many of the company's pipelines and other installations are in need of improvement, but the company hasn't budgeted enough funds for the repairs.


The pipeline involved in Monday's leak was carrying naphtha, a liquid derived from crude oil that is used as a raw material in the petrochemical industry, and also for making some fuels.


In a statement issued late Tuesday, Pemex said the leak happened in a unpopulated area about one 1 kilometer (a half-mile) from the federal highway that stretches between the Veracruz cities of Villahermosa and Coatzacoalcos, and about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the nearest town, Agua Dulce.


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The company said it learned of the leak Monday afternoon and immediately acted to shut down the pipeline. The leak spread at least 5 kilometers (three miles) away from the original site, however, carried by the Agua Dulcita and Tonela rivers, Marquez said.


At least five people, including three minors, were hospitalized after inhaling gas fumes, while 35 cows, along with an unknown number of domestic animals who tend to drink from the rivers, were killed, he said.


About 2,000 residents from the towns along the rivers and closest to the leak site were evacuated as a precaution, but only 150 people remained in shelters as of late Tuesday, Marquez said.


Soldiers cordoned off the area, and officials said they were most concerned about the risk of an explosion, given that naphtha is highly volatile.


The federal Environmental Protection Enforcement agency, a division of the Environment Department, issued a statement late Tuesday saying it had filed a criminal complaint and was "analyzing the possibility of a temporary or permanent shutdown" of the pipeline. The agency said the pipeline was 34 years old and had suffered a rupture 13 inches (30 centimeters) long, and 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide, apparently as the result of excessive pressure.


Mexico's National Water Commission said in a separate statement that it would file a criminal complaint against "whoever is found responsible" for damages to area rivers caused by the leak.


Pemex is still struggling to clean up after a massive oil spill last month caused by an oil pipeline explosion near the Coatzacoalcos River in Veracruz.


That spill injured five workers and dumped crude into the river and Gulf of Mexico, leading Mexico's environmental prosecutor to file a criminal complaint earlier this month against Pemex. The company could be fined up to US$200,000 (euro153,550) for the December spill.


About a week after that explosion, a pipeline in the nearby state of Tabasco began leaking crude. Mexico's Environment Department last week shut down that 52-kilometer (30-mile) line, which supplied crude for export from Pemex's Dos Bocas terminal.


The pipeline through Tabasco, capable of carrying 120,000 barrels of crude a day, was no longer safe to operate due to age and a lack of maintenance, the department said.


On Jan. 11, a Pemex gas well exploded. No one was injured in that blast.


Pemex chief executive Luis Ramirez called on his fellow Pemex employees this week to double their efforts to ensure that the country's energy production is clean and safe. Pemex is by far Mexico's biggest company and a major employer.


Pemex has annual revenues of nearly US$60 billion (euro45 billion). However, more than 60 percent of its sales goes to the federal government in the form of taxes and royalties, leaving the company with net losses.


Amy Guthrie, a correspondent of Dow Jones Newswires, contributed to this report from Mexico City.


Source: Associated Press


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