Safety had started to become an everyday way of thinking for Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex, but that suffered a severe setback as a huge blast ended up killing 30 workers at a pipeline facility in northern Mexico.
Pemex officials have said that an accidental leak at the facility near Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, TX, appears to have caused the fire and there were no signs of sabotage.
Executives said a valve apparently failed as workers performed routine testing where pipelines from gas wells in the Burgos basin converge near the border with Texas. The plant distributes the gas into a processing plant next door that produces fuel for domestic use.
Pemex had been reducing accidents in the 2000s, following a series of incidents in the 1980s and 1990s, according to company figures. The number of accidents per million hours worked dropped by more than half, from 1.06 in 2005 to 0.42 in 2010. That is in line with the international average of about 0.43 per million, according to the U.K.-based International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, which does not independently verify company numbers.
But Pemex said in a report starting in late 2011, a series of smaller blasts and fires, mainly at refineries and petrochemical plants, had “seriously impacted” its safety rate. It said the rate of injuries per million hours had risen to 0.54. No figures are available yet for 2012.
About one-sixth of those killed and half the 46 injured were Pemex employees. The rest worked for a half-dozen private companies doing operational and maintenance work at the station, which is next door to a larger and more flammable natural gas-processing plant.
Some analysts pointed to Pemex’s huge reliance on subcontractors as a possible contributing factor to the disaster, while others defended the outsourcing.
Pemex figures show contractors are slightly less prone than its own workers to be a part of accidents.
Pemex has suffered other enormous accidents, such as a fireball from an illegally tapped pipeline in the central state of Puebla in 2010 that killed 28 civilians, including 13 children. But that and other disasters were not at company facilities and the accidents ended up caused by illegal acts, such as thieves drilling risky taps into fuel pipelines.