Thousands of people in southern Mexico have been left without water after a punctured pipeline spilled oil into local waterways.
Over the weekend in the Mexican state of Tabasco, thieves bored a hole in an oil pipeline operated by government-owned energy firm Pemex in an attempt to steal some of the oil. That puncture caused oil to spill into rivers, endangering drinking water. Originally, about 500,000 people were left without water after four water treatment facilities were closed so that officials could ensure the oil didn’t make its way into drinking water sources, but that number has dropped to about 100,000 people after two of the plants were re-opened.
The other treatment plants likely won’t open until Friday, to give official enough time to clean up oil near the plants. Until then, the state government is urging people to ration their water, and schools in the city of Villahermosa closed Wednesday to avoid endangering students. So far, it’s unclear how much oil spilled into the waterways, which included the Sierra River.
“The damage is terrible. Of course we want to avoid the contamination of drinking water processing plants, but the environmental damage is indisputably going to be very big regardless,” Humberto de los Santos, mayor of Centro, told International Business Times. According to IBT, cleanup could take up to 15 days.
Thieves targeting pipelines for their oil and gasoline have become a major problem in Mexico. In just eight months in 2014, according to McClatchy, 7.5 million barrels of oil and gas went missing in Mexico. The theft has climbed over the years: in 2000, Mexico had 155 cases of oil and gas theft from pipelines, while in 2013, thieves tapped pipelines 2,614 times. Pemex said in February that in 2014, the number of illegal taps totaled 3,674.
Pemex head Emilio Lozoya Austin called this theft from pipeline one of the worst kinds of crime in Mexico, because it prevents the revenue the energy brings from going to the government. But, he said, it’s a kind of theft that’s hard to control.
“If you catch a presumed criminal with tanks of gasoline or diesel, it’s not a trivial matter to prove that he stole it,” he said last year. “He can say he got it anywhere.”
In addition, due to the high number of pipelines in Mexico, it’s impossible to have enough guards watching over the oil and gas infrastructure.
And, as this most recent spill illustrates, stealing oil from pipelines also threatens the safety of drinking water and the health of the environment. Last August, oil polluted a 14-mile stretch of the San Juan River — a major source of irrigation water for farmers in northern Mexico — after thieves tapped a pipeline that ran near the river. About 4,000 barrels of oil spilled into the river after the tap, and officials estimated at the time that the cleanup from the spill would take months.
Oil and gas theft can also have deadly consequences. In 2010, at least 27 people, including 12 children, were killed after an attempted theft caused an oil pipeline in Mexico’s Puebla state to explode. The explosion also injured 52 people and forced the evacuation of 5,000. In 2013, at least seven people were injured after an illegal tap led to the explosion of a Pemex pipeline near Mexico City.
Pemex is trying to find ways to stop this theft. Earlier this year, the energy firm announced that it would stop shipping usable gasoline through pipelines. Instead, the gas it sends through the pipelines will be left unrefined, a kind of fuel that wouldn’t be usable in cars or factories. Pemex hopes this move will decrease the market for stolen gasoline, as buyers discover that purchasing gas from thieves could damage their vehicles. But, as Pemex has admitted that some of its own employees are likely stealing gasoline, the measure probably won’t stop all thefts, since employees could theoretically steal the additives needed to refine the gasoline.