Is the Gas Tank Graveyard a Ticking Time Bomb?
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Is the Gas Tank Graveyard a Ticking Time Bomb?

Photo by:   @AmerangelLorenz
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Conal Quinn By Conal Quinn | Journalist & Industry Analyst - Tue, 04/19/2022 - 16:38

The former 18 de Marzo refinery and current PEMEX distribution facility on the border of the Manuel Hidalgo and Azcapotzalco boroughs in Mexico City has become a dumping ground for thousands of gas cylinders. Since November last year, thousands of worse-for-wear gas cylinders have been taken off the streets and moved to the makeshift storage facility near the neighborhoods of San Diego Ocoyoacac, Huichapan and Torre Blanca. For locals, the gas tank graveyard is a cause for major health and safety concerns. 

As well as deteriorating their quality of life, residents are fearful that prolonged exposure to the liquefied petroleum (LP) gas seeping out of the cylinders may lead to long-term health problems or, in a worst-case scenario, even an explosion. In the short term, they reported suffering from prolonged headaches and intense bouts of vomiting. Some have even taken to refraining from smoking or using their gas stoves when the odor is particularly pungent. 

The LP gas  consists of a mix of butane and propane with mercaptan added for its nauseating scent so as to make the gas detectable. The National Commission for the Efficient Use of Energy (CONUEE) said that such gasses, while not considered toxic or carcinogenic, may prove harmful to humans in the event of a gas leak, when clouds can form which may cause explosions or even suffocate people trapped in confined spaces.

Meanwhile, local fire stations have been inundated with daily phone calls from concerned citizens reporting what they believe to be gas leaks, but which upon investigation are all traced back to the former 18 de Marzo refinery, which ceased operations in 1991. César Suárez, Chief Fire Officer, Tacuba Fire Station, called the situation a “ticking time bomb,” warning that the lack of clarity and failure to coordinate emergency plans for a worst-case scenario could prove fatal. 

A spokesperson for Gas Bienstar, the state-owned company founded by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to regulate the soaring price of LP gas, insisted that the cylinders pose no threat to the local population and that in any case, inspections of the 18 de Marzo facility are carried out regularly. Yet residents complained that while they see little inspections, what they do bear witness to is a constant flow of trucks dropping off more rusty, multicolored gas cylinders. Aerial footage obtained by the AFP shows fuel tanks mere meters away from where the disused, leaking gas cylinders are tightly packed together. Residents are also fearful of LP gas infecting their water supply. 

The scheme initiated last year by Mexico City’s head of government, Claudia Sheinbaum, was designed to exchange old, faulty and potentially dangerous gas cylinders, which are commonly used in households across the capital, with newer, safer cylinders free of charge. The recommended lifespan for such cylinders is 10 years, however, the director of Gas Bienestar, Gustavo Álvarez Velázquez, reported that at least half of the cylinders they inspected ranged between 15 and 35 years of use, and were thus deemed to be unserviceable. As such, it would appear that the problem was much worse than first anticipated and repairs for tanks as old is simply unfeasible. Indeed, it is precisely this gross underestimation of the amount of cylinders found to be in an unsalvageable condition which has led to the more and more rusty cylinders piling up at 18 de Marzo before they are due to be destroyed and turned into scrap metal. 

In January, the government of Mexico City released an official communication ensuring that PEMEX were on top of the issue and would shortly be removing the cylinders responsible for the noxious odor. However, Easter has now been and gone and residents are still having to put up with the same stench, all while living in fear that they could wake up one morning to a catastrophe on their doorstep.

Photo by:   @AmerangelLorenz

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