Toxic smoke on the border

For the third time in less than a week, an industrial fire scarred the skies of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The April 7 fire at the MCS (ex-Zenith) plant near the city’s airport sent huge columns of black smoke climbing into the heavens and drifting across the borderland. The blaze spread to factories belonging to the Foxconn, Cormex and Dometic companies, temporarily idling about 1,000 workers. The disaster also caused delays and evacuations at the Ciudad Juárez airport.

As the fire raged on April 7, Ciudad Juárez fire commander Guadalupe Sandoval Castro warned the situation was “critical” due to the presence of wood, resin and plastic at the MCS facility, which manufactures wood and aluminum products. Firefighters feared an explosion from a large tank containing Freon.

Ciudad Juarez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz ordered the evacuation of all persons within 1,500 feet of the conflagration. The fire’s smoke impaired visibility in and around Ciudad Juárez, and city authorities later ordered several brick-making businesses to suspend operations in order prevent air pollution from worsening.

In addition to as many as 80 firefighters, personnel from the Mexican army, Red Cross and Ciudad Juárez water utility responded to the disaster scene. Firefighters were nevertheless hampered by a lack of equipment, according to Mexican press accounts. Local officials appealed to El Paso Mayor John Cook for assistance, but the El Paso Fire Department determined there was not much it could do since the fire was too far advanced and too far removed.

“It would have made no sense for us to go out there,” said fire department spokesman Lt. Mario Hernandez.

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez have an agreement under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Border 2012 program to give mutual notification in the event of hazardous materials emergencies, and to engage in joint training.

It was not immediately disclosed if the MCS fire was an accident or an act of arson. No initial estimates of property damage were released either.

This week’s fire was preceded by an April 3 blaze that burned up a warehouse holding toxic-containing computer equipment for the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez (UACJ). Another fire in recent days affected a factory operated by the Fanosa company.

Prior to the MCS fire, a former director of Ciudad Juárez’s ecology department urged authorities to make sure companies were following best management practices. Biologist Alma Figueroa said industrial fires in the city could cause soil contamination and other environmental damages.

Bernardo Escudero Ortega, current director of the municipal ecology and civil protection department, said MCS could be subject to sanctions if it is determined that the company did not adequately take care of flammable materials.

From Frontera NorteSur, April 8

See our last posts on Mexico and Ciudad Juárez.

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