TLAHUELILPAN / MEXICO CITY, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico's new government knew a pipeline was leaking but not working hours before an explosion killed at least 85 people, a minister said on Sunday, checking for a push to stop fuel theft seen as the first hard action of the President against crime.
State oil company Pemex did not close the fuel pipe when it was first notified by the military about four hours before Friday's explosion because it considered the leak "minimal", security minister Alfonso Durazo told a press conference.
In the hours that followed, the leak grew and as many as 800 people brought plastic containers to the flowing tube, filling with free fuel in what witnesses described as an almost festive atmosphere.
Relatives of a few victims said that fuel shortage caused by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's plan was causing people to leak to the Tula-Tuxpan pipeline, a few miles from a large refinery.
In December, Lopez Obrador sent soldiers to refineries to help fight organized crime and theft of white on-board fuels, while pipelines were shut down by thieves. The measures have reduced the theft, but early January also led to shortages and lines at petrol stations that stretch for miles.
Shortly after dark on Friday in the Tlahuelilpan district of the central state of Hidalgo, gas and fumes arose in a fireball that killed at least 85 people and left a black scar on the land. Dozens of them were so badly charred that they were only identified through DNA testing, officials said.
According to critics, the government has done too little to prevent people coming to the explosion before the explosion, it was too quick to send petrol through the canal after being closed for weeks because of the heavy-handed occurrence of the petrol theft and acted too slowly the leak was detected.
Half a dozen people told Reuters that their relatives were going to the leaking canal because they were struggling to find fuel and were desperate to refuel cars to get to work or run their farms.
"Many innocent people came here, maybe their car did not have enough petrol for tomorrow, and they said:" I'm just going to go a few liters & # 39 ;, "said farmer Isidoro Velasco, 51, who said he was cousin, Mario Hidalgo, was probably killed.
Pemex had been in a hurry to reopen the pipeline to prevent a new round of gasoline shortages in Mexico City, said Gonzalo Monroy, head of Mexico-based energy consulting firm GMEC, where he talks with oil industry professionals quoted.
Disputes of the staff that provided thieves with fuel opened the pipe, he said that sources in Pemex indicated that the crack took place at a place that Pemex had previously repaired and gave under the pressure of a new wave of fuel.
Pemex officials decided to run the fuel after the first signs of a leak and sent a team to inspect it, he said.
Pemex did not respond to requests for comments.
When asked why it took so long to close the valves of the tube after the leak was detected, Durazo said that Pemex followed the protocol. The explosion took place half an hour after Pemex closed the valve, he said, because gasoline with a high octane content remained in the pipeline.
Lopez Obrador said on Sunday that the disaster had not weakened his intention to fight fuel theft.
"I will not step back," he said at the first of two news conferences. "I can only apologize to people if this action leads to sacrifices, damage and inconveniences."
Lopez Obrador said he hoped the offer would normalize as soon as Mexico buys more tankers for distribution by road.
If it's successful in uprooting a parallel fuel network that drains about $ 3 billion of Pemex fuel per year, the veteran leftist who won the election last year on promises to eradicate endemic corruption will have a big early victory achieved, making the ailing national oil company strengthened Pemex and helping to stabilize fuel prices.
However, the explosion has increased the deployment.
The failure would probably not only erode its popularity, but also create risks for the economy, the world's sixth largest fuel market.
An opinion poll last week showed that the fuel strategy was a polarizing issue, with about half of the population supporting the measure despite lines at petrol stations and other problems.
Pemex initially retired from the Tula-Tuxpan pipeline at the end of December when the government tried to protect it from gangs who had beaten it ten times in Tlahuelilpan, said Pemex Chief Executive Officer Octavio Romero on Saturday.
After Pemex started restarting the operations on Wednesday, the line experienced four more attacks.
Romero said Pemex closed a valve on the pipeline Friday after he noticed that the leak was coming under pressure. Pemex informed other authorities about the leak at 16.50 hours, he added.
Responding to questions about why fuel flowed from the leak to the explosion, Lopez Obrador said that 10,000 barrels of gas had been collected in the pipeline between the Tula refinery and the village. Minister of Energy Rocio Nahle said the pipeline was under pressure.
Lopez Obrador said that the army, which had deployed only 25 soldiers for the explosion, ordered the villagers to stay back, but was ignored.
Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Additional reporting and writing by Frank Jack Daniel, Daina Beth Solomon and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Edited by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney