Caribbean Petroleum Corporation (CAPECO) Response, Two Years Later

An aerial shot of the facility the night of the explosions, 10/23/09

By Mark Gallo 

On October 23, 2009 at approximately 12:30 a.m., residents of the San Juan area of Puerto Rico either observed or were awakened by the fire and explosions that rocked their area (see “Fire in the Sky”, October 2009). If you ask residents where they were that night, the majority remember it like it was yesterday. 

Working as an EPA On-Scene Coordinator (OSC), you expect that on some days you will wake up and find yourself in the middle of chaos. One of those days for me was at the CAPECO response, an emergency response action to a fire/explosion of a major petroleum oil storage facility in Bayamon, PR. It was four days after the initial explosion when I received the call to support five other EPA OSCs already on site, one from the EPA San Juan Office and four from our EPA Edison office. I “had” a nice weekend planned, but duty calls, my flight was booked, and I found myself waking up to chaos the following day. To quote a co-worker’s response, “There’s oil EVERYWHERE!” This facility had approximately 60 million (M) gallons on site during the incident and approximately 30M gallons either consumed in the fire or released to the environment. The remaining oil was in tanks with questionable integrity! 

When I arrived, the OSCs were coordinating with at least a dozen agencies, establishing an Incident Command Structure, staffing and organizing the Incident Management Team, directing clean-up contractors, ordering resources, and working logistics and plans for the coming hours, as that was how quickly conditions changed during the initial days of the response. The 24/7 operation continued well into late November of 2009, when there was some sense of security in reducing operational hours.

For the past two years, EPA’s involvement with the CAPECO site has moved from a response action, to a responsible party oversight, to a fund-lead removal action, through a bankruptcy sale, to now; currently overseeing three administrative orders covering actions on site, all designed to protect public health, safety, and the environment.  Each phase of this site presented its own unique challenges.

Some of these challenges included coordinating with over a dozen local, commonwealth, and federal agencies, logistics and management of cleanup operations, communicating operations and risks with the public, as well as managing site budgets with funding in competition with response actions for the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While these challenges are present on most sites, the size, magnitude, and time commitment required on the CAPECO site were well above the average. 

This facility is one of considerable economic importance in that it was one of the largest bulk oil storage facilities on the island. It is tied into airport operations as well as two of the San Juan area power stations.  Without it, the metro area could go no longer than five-seven days without a barge shipment of fuel, not a comfortable feeling during hurricane season!  Operational priorities could change in hours, containment and recovery would share priority with repairs and fuel transfer operations.  Balancing priorities in order to meet objectives of public safety and minimizing economic impacts was one of the biggest challenges. 

As the two-year anniversary of this site approached, I was asked to look back at the challenges EPA faced and write about how far this site has come.  At the current time, a new owner has embarked on its process of rebuilding this facility.  This new owner, Puma Energy Caribe, under EPA oversight, continues with on-going clean-up operations and the rebuilding of the facility to meet the economic demands for oil on the island. And while site operations are now, for the most part, routine, it was not without the time, hard work, and dedication from both public and private sectors, a collaborative and coordinated effort of many! 

About the Author: Mark Gallo is an On-Scene Coordinator with the US EPA, Region 2, Response and Prevention Branch, Edison, NJ.  Mark, along with more than a half dozen OSCs, worked on the initial response action in the last months of 2009.  Mark was one of three primary OSCs involved with managing site clean-up operations through August 2011.

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