A third crude tank caught fire and collapsed Monday at Cuba’s main oil terminal in Matanzas, the regional governor has said, as an oil spill spread flames from a second tank that caught fire two days earlier in the island’s biggest oil industry accident in decades.
Cuba had made progress fighting off the raging flames during the weekend after drawing on help from Mexico and Venezuela, but late on Sunday the fire began spreading from the second tank, which collapsed, said Mario Sabines, governor of the Matanzas province, about 100km (60 miles) from Havana.
A fourth tank is threatened but has yet to catch fire. Firefighters had sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend to cool them and try to stop the fire from spreading.
Matanzas is Cuba’s largest port for receiving crude oil and fuel imports. Cuban heavy crude, as well as fuel oil and diesel stored in Matanzas, are mainly used to generate electricity on the island.
Sabines compared the situation to an “Olympic torch” going from one tank to the next, turning each into a “caldron” and now encompassing the area covering three tanks and with flames and billowing black smoke making tackling the situation “complicated”.
“The risk we had announced happened, and the blaze of the second tank compromised the third one,” said Sabines.
Local officials warned residents to use face masks or stay indoors given the billowing smoke enveloping the region that can be seen from Havana.
Officials have warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances.
One firefighter has died and 16 people are missing, all from Saturday’s explosion at the second storage tank. The blaze started after lightning struck one of the facility’s eight tanks on Friday night.
Cuban state-run television has covered the unfolding disaster live since Saturday and President Miguel Diaz-Canel has been a constant presence there, highlighting the economic and political importance of the situation.
The heavily US-sanctioned country has been suffering from blackouts, gas and other shortages that had already created a tense situation with scattered local protests following last year’s anti-government demonstrations in July.
A tanker carrying Russian crude to Matanzas, identified by Refinitiv Eikon monitoring service, is unlikely to be able to discharge next week even if docks are not affected by the fire, because of possible damage to tanks, pipelines and valves, analysts said.
At noon on Monday, authorities announced the country’s most important power plant, located about a kilometre from the fire, had been shut down due to low water pressure in the area.