14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, 4 December 2017 — Five days after an ammonia leak that kept some people in the city of Camagüey in suspense, the neighbors of the Coppelia ice cream factory fear that the consequences of the spill will be more serious than what has been announced, and they are reproaching the authorities for not having given them a warming and evacuated the residents.
In the local media the leak was attributed to “a mistake by the shift operator in the engine room” and they timed the moment of the spill between 6:20 and 6:30 on Wednesday morning. At that time, most of the families residing in the Las Mercedes district were asleep or preparing to leave their houses.
The strong smell of the chemical substance reached the Casino Campestre, about a mile from the place where the plant is located, according to witness statements collected by 14ymedio. “We began to fear that something had happened when we sensed an unpleasant and very strong smell,” says Dinora, a nurse and neighbor of the Coppelia plant.
Close to the historic center, the factory was built before 1959 and its owner located it on the outskirts of the city, but over the years the neighborhoods grew and surrounded the facility. Along one of its sides the railway line runs and the streets surrounding it are very busy.
Residents in the vicinity regret that on the day of the accident they did not evacuate the closest families, nor was there a broad dissemination of information about the incident to warn people of what had happened and avoid damaging their health.
Although firefighters and police arrived at the scene quickly, many thought it was a fire or other type of emergency inside the factory. Only when they sensed the strong smell did they realize that a chemical leak had happened.
“In high concentrations the gas irritates the throat, inflames the lungs, damages the respiratory tract and the eyes,” Dr. Alejandro Torres explained to this newspaper. “As the concentration increases, it can produce pulmonary edema.”
The doctor believes that the biggest risk in the escape of ammonia from Coppelia was to the “factory workers because they are exposed to higher concentrations of the chemical.” However, the authorities insist that the leak was insignificant and that there is no risk to the lives of the workers.
“It is not the first time that there has been an ammonia leak in the Coppelia factory,” Ivis Regueiro, a local resident told 14ymedio. “What did surprise me was the deployment of the police and firefighters, that had never happened before.”
Many families in the area have wells in the backyards of their homes, as a way to guarantee a water supply in a city that has been seriously affected by the problems created by the deteriorated hydraulic infrastructure and a long drought.
“No one has told us if we can continue taking water from our well or not,” laments a neighbor a few yards from where the leak occurred. “No one explains the harm to our health and if the spilled ammonia has contaminated the waters of the area,” she complains.”The news they have given us is that everything is controlled, but people do not believe it.”
Jesús Tejeda Jorge, production manager of the Dairy Products Company, assured the local press that the liquid ammonia used in the refrigeration process, once spilled, “instead of going to the atmosphere, is siphoned away through the drains.”
Tejeda acknowledged that the factory does not have every method of protection, despite having requested them from the Dairy Products Company. In the engine room where the ammonia leak occurred, “there is only one isothermal suit for the shift operator,” he explains.
The pipes with sewage from the factory are also joined to those that carry the sewage waters of the area and end up in the Hatibonico River, which is very polluted at present.
The environmental activist Inalkis Rodríguez has repeatedly denounced the government’s indolence in the face of the Hatibonico situation. In her Twitter account, three years ago she published an image accompanied by the following sentence: “All the rivers in the city of Camagüey are in these terrible states of contamination.” Since then the situation has worsened.
A study carried out by specialists of the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Camagüey warned of the effects that wastewater discharges, without an effective treatment, were causing in the river. The Hatibonico is severely contaminated with organic matter, nutrients and heavy metals, the researchers say.
One of the academics who carried out the study spoke with this newspaper under anonymity to report that “contamination by ammonia will have a very negative impact on the Hatibonico River, […] which already had experienced deterioration in its basin, where part of the natural life has lost the battle against industries and sewage waters.”
“The accident was foreseeable because the factory is greatly deteriorated and workers must deal with many problems every day to keep the industry producing,” the engineer adds. “It’s a miracle that this does not happen more often and in more dangerous volumes.”
The academic points out that every day thousands of pollutant residues end up in the river and that the responsible industries do not apply the waste treatment protocols called for in the reports of the University of Camagüey.
Camagüeyans not only have a polluted river converted into a narrow greywater stream for decades, but they have also had to learn to cope with frequent industrial discharges. What happened in the Coppelia factory is nothing new for them, although they see the publication by the official press of a type of incident that normally does not appear in the media as unprecedented.
The Tínima Beer Factory, on the northern beltway of the city, is a frequent scene of this type of accident. The incidence is so high that the students of the nearby Máximo Gómez Báez High School Vocational Institute of Exact Sciences have an emergency protocol that they must practice several times a year, as 14ymedio confirmed with numerous students.
In the nearby city of Nuevitas, the Ammonia Receptor Base is located, the only one of its kind in Cuba, whose frequent breaks sometimes result in gas spills. The inhabitants of the surroundings are protected only with cloths over their nose and mouth, or take refuge in the homes of relatives.
In September of this year, another ammonia spill occurred when the driver of a tank car for the Trucks Union of Cuba in Guantanamo did not correctly calculate the height when entering the warehouse of a meat company and the discharge pipe was broken when it hit a roof beam. For about 15 minutes there was a leak of ammonia in the form of gas.
In 2008, about 50 people received medical attention for respiratory and skin disorders of a mild nature, and between 4,000 and 5,000 were evacuated after a leak of ammonia in a refrigerator in the free zone of Berroa, in the outskirts of Havana.
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