Oil from refinery blast slickens Nicaragua habitat: environmentalists

View of the explosion of a second fuel storage tank at the Puma Energy plant in Puerto Sandino on August 18.
View of the explosion of a second fuel storage tank at the Puma Energy plant in Puerto Sandino on August 18.PHOTO: AFP
Locals stare at the fire following the explosion of a second fuel storage tank at the Puma Energy plant in Puerto Sandino on August 18.
Locals stare at the fire following the explosion of a second fuel storage tank at the Puma Energy plant in Puerto Sandino on August 18.PHOTO: AFP
An explosion caused by a fire at a fuel storage tank belonging to the Puma Energy Company is seen in Puerto Sandino, Leon, Nicaragua on August 18.
An explosion caused by a fire at a fuel storage tank belonging to the Puma Energy Company is seen in Puerto Sandino, Leon, Nicaragua on August 18.PHOTO: REUTERS
Smoke rises from a fire at a Puma Energy plant after two oil tanks exploded in Puerto Sandino near Managua, Nicaragua on August 18.
Smoke rises from a fire at a Puma Energy plant after two oil tanks exploded in Puerto Sandino near Managua, Nicaragua on August 18.PHOTO: EPA

MANAGUA (AFP) - A massive refinery fire in Nicaragua caused an oil spill that has contaminated sensitive nearby coastal habitat, a nonprofit group here said.

In the aftermath of the refinery fire at the Puma Energy facility on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, oil has slickened nearly one-half of a square mile of the nearby water and soil, said Victor Campos, director of the Humboldt Center, an environmental group.

Meanwhile, authorities said Saturday (Aug 20) they hope to soon have the fire contained at the facility, this Central American nation's sole oil refinery.

The fire, which has been burning since Wednesday, began when one of four huge fuel tanks exploded at the site in the port of Puerto Sandino, some 70 kilometres northwest of the capital Managua. A second tank ignited on Thursday.

Oil from the spill could be seen on the coast and in surrounding vegetation in photos provided by Campos, who said that the damage done to the area would take years to reverse.

Environmentalists said the affected area includes ecologically sensitive habitat.

Surrounding beaches are home to important nesting grounds for several turtle species, while the Puerto Sandino coast and nearby Miramar beach produce 12 per cent of Nicaragua's salt.

The area has "a number of natural resources as well as people, agriculture, livestock, local fauna, coastal marine life and birds," said resource specialist Ruth Herrera.

She added that environmentalists also expect that some wells in the area will also be contaminated.

Each of the damaged fuel tanks is capable of holding some 144,000 barrels, although the company ruled out a fuel shortage following the fire.

The Nicaragua and Puma energy said Saturday that they hope to extinguish the fire within hours, and said that the company would be strengthening its water contamination monitoring and surveying the environmental impact.

A huge plume of acrid smoke at one point billowed up to 3,000 metres at the disaster scene, but has largely dissipated, local media said.

Puma Energy, a majority Dutch- and Angolan-owned company with headquarters in Switzerland, bought the refinery in 2011. It had previously been run by the US group Exxon.