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Fire in petrochemical plant puts spotlight on regional environmental concerns

by Brian Reyes, Maria Jesus Corrales and Eyleen Gomez

A fire in a warehouse in a petrochemical plant in the Campo de Gibraltar on Tuesday sent a plume of thick, black smoke over the Bay of Gibraltar, causing alarm in communities on both sides of the border and once again placing a spotlight on the environmental impact of heavy industrial activity on the region.

The fire started at around 3.30pm in a warehouse inside a plant operated by Indorama Ventures, a Thai company that produces plastics and operates around the world.

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A spokeswoman for the company told the Chronicle that an internal emergency response plan was triggered immediately and that there were no casualties as a result of the blaze.

The warehouse was used to store powdered PTA and PIA, two highly-flammable products used in the production of certain plastics.

It took nearly five hours to extinguish the fire and investigations were under way last night to establish the cause of the blaze.

“The first risk was to ensure that the fire did not extend to any of the surrounding units,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz Boix, the mayor of San Roque, the nearest town to the fire.

“There was no need to activate the municipal emergency plan and the nearby plants continued their normal production, given that it would have been more dangerous to stop their activity.”

“Had there been a danger, production would have been stopped but this would have created additional emissions which have been avoided, given that the fire was brought swiftly under control.”

After the fire at Indorama plant.

But even if the blaze was under control, the image of the plume of smoke was dramatic and caused widespread alarm.

For several hours yesterday, people on both sides of the border watched with mounting concern as a thick pall of smoke settled over the bay, whisked by winds that luckily pushed the bulk of the plume away from Gibraltar and most communities around the bay.

A spokesman for the Consorcio de Bomberos in the Campo de Gibraltar, which provides fire and rescue response services to all municipalities in the region, said it had received over 50 calls after the fire broke out.

In Gibraltar, the Civil Contingencies Committee convened at No.6 Convent Place to monitor events and liaise with Spanish authorities, who were offered the assistance of Gibraltar's firefighters if needed.

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From the outset, officials in Spain played down the toxicity of the smoke, although they urged people to close windows and stay indoors is possible to minimise risk.

At around 7pm, after a series of updates via social media, the Gibraltar Government echoed that message and said: "We continue to monitor the plume but there is no reason to believe that it is toxic."

"The wind continues to blow the plume away from Gibraltar and, as it disperses over the Bay, we do not expect the Rock to be affected."

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But even before the smoke had dispersed, environmental campaigners joined in unison in a chorus of protest, demanding tighter controls on an industry that dominates the landscape in the Campo de Gibraltar.

Verdemar, which has been sharply critical of Gibraltar's use as a submarine base, ignored the arrival yesterday of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Talent to focus instead on the emergency unfolding on its doorstep.

Spokesman Alfredo Valencia demanded "an adequate emergency plan" for the Campo given its sensitivity and the intense petrochemical activity it was home to.

He said he had received numerous calls from people "who didn't know what to do" faced with the dramatic images.

And he complained that "there wasn't a proper emergency plan or a coordinated official voice to tell people what to do in such a critical situation."

"The information was piecemeal and improvised and people were informing themselves via social media and by calling us."

He also complained that air quality monitors in the Campo were giving good readings throughout the emergency yesterday, questioning whether the data was being provided in real time as it should be.

He was dismissive too of claims that the smoke was "not toxic", adding that officials had been trying to play down a serious incident.

He said Verdemar would focus attention in the coming days on plans to expand further the petrochemical industrial base in the Campo, repeating the group's call for a moratorium on any expansion until the risks are properly evaluated and mitigated, given the proximity of urban areas.

Verdemar and other groups want yesterday's incident to serve as a point of reflection and are considering a mass protest to call for a detailed emergency plan to deal with situations like this.

In Gibraltar, environmental campaigners cancelled a planned Climate Change protest over concerns about the plume of smoke, echoing the sentiments expressed by their Spanish counterparts.

The Environmental Safety Group, which has long campaigned for tighter controls on industry, said that it always feared that incidents like this could happen.

Spokeswoman Janet Howitt said the group had been in touch with other NGOs in the area to establish reliable information about the response to the incident, especially as the pollution was “highly toxic”.

“It is somehow ironic that an environmental march is postponed due to safety issues from a major industrial plant,” she said.

“Not entirely shocking though, as it is always a possibility and very worrying when these incidences happen as the fallout is risky and toxic."

And she added: “The scale of the plume, thick with particulates, was vast and instructions were given not to inhale and remain inside.”

“This ‘avoid if possible advice’ suggests that a common sense approach was being adopted. This is the definition of toxic and we believe it is clear this pollution was toxic to people and to the natural environment.”

Lewis Stagnetto, the marine biologist at The Nautilus Project who has campaigned against plastic pollution, said the fire demonstrated how vulnerable communities in this area are to incidents like this.

“The fire at the Indorama Ventures, a plastic manufacturer, has produced worry and alarm within the local community and demonstrates our environmental vulnerability with respect to our air quality,” he told the Chronicle.

“It is ironic that this incident has forced the organisers of the 'Climate March' to cancel the event.”

“Whilst lamentable, this was clearly the safest and correct decision under the circumstances."

"It also highlights the urgent need to reduce our dependence on plastic products and demonstrates the dangers of such industries in the Bay of Gibraltar."

"This incident should reinforce our sense of urgency in eradicating these harmful industries from the region."

MAIAN PHOTO: David Parody