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Planet Ark World Environment News Fire at Mexico Pemex gas facility kills 26

Date: 19-Sep-12
Country: USA
Author: Adriana Barrera

At least 26 people were killed and as many injured when a Pemex gas facility burst into flames in northern Mexico on Tuesday, one of the worst accidents to hit the state oil monopoly in recent years.

Pemex said in a statement that 26 workers had been killed at the gas compression station near the city of Reynosa, a key entry point for natural gas to Mexico from the United States.

Pemex said gas imports from the United States were not affected, as the station stores gas from Mexico's Burgos field, and is not an import terminal.

Television footage showed flames leaping high into the sky during the blaze, which was the third in about five weeks to hit Pemex in Tamaulipas, a border state that has struggled to contain the menace of warring drug gangs.

Victor Barrera, a local subcontractor at the plant, said he was just 30 metres (98 feet) away when a pipeline exploded.

"A friend just told me around 40 people who were working on the tank were burned when there was a sudden explosion. I didn't even have time to turn around, what I did was run to save myself," said Barrera.

Parts of the plant were reduced to a mangled wreckage of twisted, charred tubing, the earth beneath scorched black. Soldiers stood guard with assault rifles at the entrance.

The cause of the fire was unclear. Pemex said it was still investigating after fire fighters brought it under control early on Tuesday afternoon. Local residents told media they heard an explosion before the flames took hold.

Illegal tapping of pipelines, which have been regularly targeted by criminal gangs, costing Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars, have sparked fires in the past.

Of the dead in Tuesday's incident, four were Pemex staff, and 22 were contract workers, the company said. Another 27 people were injured.

The fire disrupted gas distribution in the area after Pemex turned off the pipeline, and local deliveries could be put under more serious strain if the shutdown is prolonged.

Tamaulipas has been a battleground for drug cartels seeking to control smuggling routes, and gangs have repeatedly sought to siphon off fuel from pipelines.

Pemex has suffered frequent accidents over the years.

In 1984, hundreds of people died and many more were burned after a series of explosions at a Pemex liquid petroleum gas facility in San Juanico, on the edge of Mexico City.

SYMBOL OF MEXICO

The incident is likely to increase pressure to improve security and transparency at Pemex, a symbol of Mexican self-sufficiency since the oil industry was nationalized in 1938.

Attempts to reform the company, which provides the federal government with nearly a third of its tax revenues and whose union has major political clout, have been difficult.

Incoming president Enrique Pena Nieto has pledged to break with tradition and open Pemex to more private investment, but he faces a stiff challenge in Congress to achieve this.

Pemex said the blaze had caused damage to the measuring equipment, a pipeline and several control valves at the plant, which belongs to its exploration and production arm, PEP.

David Shields, an independent Mexico City-based oil analyst, said supply to Mexico's domestic market was unlikely to be significantly affected by a temporary closure.

"If Monterrey can be supplied from one pipeline, it can be supplied from another," said Shields.

Earlier this month, four Pemex workers were injured after a fire broke out at the Madero refinery in Tamaulipas. Another blaze at the same refinery occurred on August 13.

(Reporting by Adriana Barrera, David Alire Garcia and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Dave Graham, Bob Burgdorfer, Carol Bishopric, Gary Hill and Daniel Magnowski)

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