Mexicans Scrutinize Safety Following Guadalajara Blasts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BLAME for the chain of explosions that carved a five-mile path of destruction through Mexico's second largest city last Wednesday is settling on Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the government-owned oil company.

Evidence to date indicates that a ruptured Pemex gasoline pipeline connected to a city storage tank was leaking into the sewer system for several days before the blast, according to investigators. Residents complained of smelling gas, and Guadalajara municipal workers, with Pemex crews, had been crawling through sewers trying to locate the source for two days before the explosion, reports the reputable Mexico City daily La Jornada.

Pemex has repaired the broken pipeline. But Pemex spokesman Ricardo Franco Quiroz says the leaks were not there before the disaster. They were "caused by damage to the pipes as a result of the explosion." Shortly after the explosions, Pemex issued a statement blaming a cooking-oil factory for releasing hexane gas into the sewer system.

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Yet chemical engineers at the Mexican National Autonomous University say the cooking oil plant had nowhere near enough hexane - used as a solvent - to cause a series of explosions of this magnitude. And the plant's hexane tanks were reportedly still full the day after the explosion.

As residents of this poorer section of Guadalajara continued to sift through the rubble, the official number killed by the blasts climbed to 189 over the weekend, with 1,680 injured and some 4,400 left homeless. Damage is estimated at $65 million.

City residents demanding compensation and reprisals disrupted a press conference Friday by the Jalisco state governor, Guillermo Cosio. The question of why city officials did not evacuate the area before the blasts remains unanswered.

Homero Aridjis, president of the environmental organization Group of 100, says developing nations' governments tend to put business interests before public health.

"Dumping toxic chemicals into public sewers is a common practice in Mexico. And there are hundreds of high-risk industries in highly populated, low-income zones," he says. "But the residents don't carry much clout. So, when people complain of fumes, no one listens."

The Guadalajara disaster appears likely to put greater pressure for compliance with safety and environmental codes on all industries operating in urban areas.

Municipal leaders in six states are demanding that Mexico's Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology inspect all Pemex underground installations immediately. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has moved quickly to investigate the cause of the disaster and provide relief assistance. His party, which has been in power since 1929, suffered a near-defeat in the 1988 presidential elections. Political pundits say widespread perceptions of government corruption and ineptness in handling the 1985 Mexico Cit y earthquake undermined party support.

Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis, a rumored presidential hopeful, announced that he is having all of the capital's sewage lines checked for dangerous gas leaks.

Last Friday afternoon Sodelva Solano, a resident in the Agricola Oriental neighborhood of Mexico City, smelled gas. She ran from her home in time to see a large cloud rising over a small business half a block away which installs natural gas tanks. Two months ago, it also began selling natural gas to public buses.

Ms. Solano was joined by some 20 residents emerging from their homes in this mostly industrial zone. They spontaneously marched on the gas vender's office. "How can you weld gas tanks, smoke cigarettes, and sell gas at the same place?" one resident asked angrily.

"We don't smoke here, it's forbidden," replied office manager Arraceli Gonzalez, ignoring the half-full ashtray on her desk.

"We're scared by what happened in Guadalajara," Solano says. "And we're mad. Why do we have to put up with this danger?"

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