By Brenda Reyes
A loud thump woke me up just past midnight three years ago on October 23, 2009. A raging fire in the nearby tank farm and former refinery, known as CaPeCo, blazed for three days and became one of the worst environmental emergencies in Puerto Rico in the last decade. Burned vegetation was the silent witness to the environmental catastrophe. That date changed the course of my professional career here at EPA. Nowadays, there is a ”Before CaPeCo” and an “After CaPeCo” as I learned many new things when dealing with a major emergency.
I spent many days inside the facility in a small mobile office while the day saw co-workers and personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, contractors and the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board coming and going from the site. Many hours were spent on on-site meetings trying to gather facts for all media outlets that covered the story from day one and many others visiting nearby communities, meeting with their leaders and government representatives.
At the beginning, progress wasn’t being made at the pace needed. Burned and collapsed tanks reaffirmed my beliefs, as I traveled Road #28, less than a mile from my house. Today, however, I can say that the fire and explosion are finally a distant memory as the facility is thriving and undergoing a major transformation. The change is evident. The collaboration between the new owners and our Agency has been steady, as they are in the last stages of demolition of the former refinery, which included asbestos abatement. 12,000 tons of scrap metal as well as asbestos material have been removed from the two and a half acre site where the refinery once stood. There are new tanks being built with emergency mitigation controls, including overfill alarms. All butane, fuel oil, and liquid petroleum gas pipes have been inspected, repaired and have undergone hydrostatic tests. Other projects in the facility include lead paint abatement and demolition of the older structures.
As I visited the facility with On-Scene Coordinator Christopher Jiménez a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much progress has been made in such a short time. This doesn’t happen at all facilities that have undergone devastation and sometimes it is very hard to portray updates to communities and all those interested, when working with superfund sites, environmental emergencies or regulated facilities. Sometimes that is the challenge I have as a public affairs officer and community relations specialist. Here the change is evident…and I can appreciate it, from my office window at the new CEPD offices. It reminds me that collaboration is an essential function in the work we do every day.
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