Mexico’s fuel thieves undeterred by deadly blast

A general view shows the site where a fuel pipeline, ruptured by suspected oil thieves, exploded in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By David Alire Garcia

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Days after a fireball erupted near the Mexican town of Tlahuelilpan, killing at least 117 people pilfering gasoline from a pipeline, the area’s fuel bandits were back in business.

Illegal taps, some of them newly opened, were the giveaway that fuel was flowing again. Soldiers patrolling this area in central Mexico after the Jan. 18 tragedy told Reuters they found 15 illicit spigots just a few kilometers away on the same pipeline operated by the nation’s state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos or Pemex.

In one spot, Reuters saw a freshly dug hole leading to a shiny valve attached to the pipeline lying about a meter underground. Nearby were discarded plastic hoses, snack wrappers, an empty pack of cigarettes and a blanket still wet with gasoline.

Such is the mammoth task confronting President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has vowed to end Mexico’s rampant fuel theft. The practice is depriving the government of badly needed tax revenue; it cost Pemex an estimated $3 billion last year alone.

Security experts say small-time thieves, organized crime gangs and corrupt Pemex employees all have a hand in the trade. The crudest operators hack into pipelines to siphon gasoline and diesel, often at night in rural outposts. They then resell it to gas station owners, at roadside stands and in open-air markets.

A Pemex spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In December, Lopez Obrador announced a crackdown on the banditry. To thwart pipeline taps, he ordered Pemex to transport some fuel overland in tanker trucks. The result: widespread shortages and long lines at gas stations.

A sign warning of a pipeline is seen at the site where a fuel pipeline, ruptured by suspected oil thieves, exploded in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A sign warning of a pipeline is seen at the site where a fuel pipeline, ruptured by suspected oil thieves, exploded in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The bottlenecks have eased. But fuel theft is so endemic that the culture will be hard to break, even in Tlahuelilpan.

An estimated 800 of the town’s residents, many carrying buckets, had flocked to a nearby pipeline when word spread on social media that a large pool of gasoline had sprung from a bootleg tap. Dozens were killed when the gas ignited; scores more were badly burned.

Marcelino Valdez, a Catholic priest in Tlahuelilpan, said in between funerals that many here support Lopez Obrador. But he doubted the president’s strategy would yield quick results in an area where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, according to government data.

“The people don’t like to steal, it’s not something they enjoy,” Valdez said. “But they look up and see so much corruption, so much injustice, and they see that their hands are empty.”



Hidalgo state, where Tlahuelilpan is located, is the nation’s leader in illicit breaches of Pemex pipelines. Fuel thieves known as huachicoleros last year drilled a record 2,121 illegal taps in the state, or nearly six each day, according to Pemex data. That is more than a six-fold increase in just two years.

Oil industry experts say Hidalgo’s location is a big reason. Situated to the north of the Mexican capital, the state is home to Pemex’s second-biggest oil refinery and critical pipelines supplying the giant Mexico City metro area.

Fuel prices are a factor too. At the start of 2017, the government of then-President Enrique Pena Nieto hiked prices by as much as 20 percent in a bid to end costly subsidies, a move many in Tlahuelilpan say is driving theft.

Since Lopez Obrador’s term began on Dec. 1, the government says it has arrested 558 people accused of stealing fuel. It has frozen bank accounts and deployed soldiers to guard key Pemex installations, including the Tula refinery about 9 miles (15 km) southwest of Tlahuelilpan.

While organized crime is a big player, the president has reserved particular disdain for Pemex, blaming crooked company insiders for much of the illicit trade.

“We’re talking about a plan that has ties inside the government,” he said during a Dec. 27 press conference.

Juan Pedro Cruz, mayor of Tlahuelilpan, likewise is suspicious of Pemex employees. He told Reuters he visited the site of an illegal pipeline tap shortly after he was elected in 2016. Cruz said he watched as Pemex workers carefully covered up the tap without disabling it.

“What message did that send to me?” Cruz said. “They were going to use it again.”

Cruz has faced questions too. Following the January accident, news reports linked him to a local warehouse that once was used to store stolen fuel. Cruz denied wrongdoing. He said Pemex solicited his help in finding temporary storage for gasoline recovered from crooks.

In addition to arresting fuel thieves, Lopez Obrador has launched a new 3,600 peso ($189) monthly scholarship for unemployed Mexican youth, a program he has pitched as a way to address the root causes of crime.

But some townspeople in Tlahuelilpan doubt it will dissuade many young people from seizing what some see as their only opportunity to get ahead.

Mariano Hernandez, a local math teacher, said some fuel thieves can clear as much as 10,000 pesos ($525) daily.

“They say, ‘I’d rather make a lot of money for one or two years than live many years in poverty,'” Hernandez said.

The president’s steepest challenge may be persuading people such as Magali Ortiz that fuel theft is worthy of such high-profile scrutiny.

Her husband Omar Vasquez died in the conflagration. Two other relatives are missing.

Stealing fuel is “not a crime,” Ortiz said. “It’s a job.”

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Dan Flynn and Marla Dickerson)

Fireball near Bologna airport after road crash explosion

A general view of the motorway after an accident caused a large explosion and fire at Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, August 6, 2018. Italian Firefighters Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

ROME (Reuters) – Two trucks collided on a motorway near Bologna airport in northern Italy on Monday, sending a huge ball of fire and billows of black smoke soaring into the sky.

At least one person was killed and around 55 were injured, 14 seriously, according to local media.

Police said they had closed off the road where the crash took place as well as the surrounding area in Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna.

Firefighters work on the motorway after an accident caused a large explosion and fire at Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Firefighters work on the motorway after an accident caused a large explosion and fire at Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Italian media said a truck carrying cars collided on a bridge with another tanker truck containing inflammable materials.

Part of the bridge collapsed and the resulting explosion and fire spread to a carpark below the bridge, where several other vehicles caught fire and exploded.

Firefighters and ambulances headed to the scene.

A video shot from a parked car at the moment of the explosion appeared to show someone being engulfed by flames when the tanker exploded.

(Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Texas pipeline blaze put out after seven hospitalized; explosions probed

A pipeline explosion erupts in this image captured from video by a field worker in Midland County, the home to the Permian Basin and the largest U.S. oilfield, in Texas, U.S., August 1, 2018. Courtesy Marty Baeza/Handout via REUTERS

By Gary McWilliams

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Authorities on Thursday were investigating what caused a fire and a series of natural gas pipeline explosions in Midland County, Texas, which sent seven people to the hospital on Wednesday and shut down five lines before being extinguished late in the evening.

Workers and firefighters were responding to a leak when the blast occurred, Midland County Fire Marshal Dale Little said on Thursday. The cause of the original explosions has not been determined, he said.

Five workers with critical injuries were airlifted to University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, and were being treated at the center’s burn unit.

One man remained in critical condition and three others were upgraded to serious condition, all with burn injuries, medical center spokesman Eric Finley said on Thursday.

The fifth pipeline worker, a Kinder Morgan Inc employee, was listed in stable condition at the hospital, a company spokeswoman said.

Two firefighters responding to the blaze also were taken to hospital on Wednesday for treatment of burn injuries, said Elana Ladd, public information officer for the city of Midland.

Ladd said the pipeline explosions occurred just outside the city of Midland on a rural road, FM 1379, about five miles (8 km) south of Highway 158.

Marty Baeza, a Fort Stockton, Texas oilfield worker who was working at a site about a half mile (0.8 km) from the explosion, said the blast shook the water-treatment unit where he was working.

“It felt like someone had bumped us,” said Baeza. He went outside and saw a large fireball that lit the sky for about five minutes. Firefighters arrived quickly, he said.

Kinder Morgan’s El Paso Natural Gas (EPNG) line was damaged by the blaze, but service impacts are expected to be minimal, spokeswoman Sara Hughes said in an email. The company believes the problem started with a nearby pipeline.

“There was a third-party pipeline involved that also experienced a failure, and preliminary indications are that the third-party line failure occurred before the EPNG line failure,” Hughes said.

Authorities on Thursday morning said they were not able to identify the operators of the other pipelines affected by the blast.

Oil and gas pipelines crisscross Midland County, which is located in the Permian Basin, the largest U.S. oilfield. The explosions affected five pipelines which share a transit channel and which were all shut in by operators, a Midland city official said on Wednesday.

Gas prices at the Waha hub, in the Permian basin, increased by 13 cents, or about 6 percent, on Wednesday to $2.23 per million British thermal units, although much of the trade that day would have occurred before the fire, which started at around 11:14 a.m. CDT (1614 GMT).

Thomson Reuters data showed that as of Thursday, the explosions had not affected overall flows of natural gas in Midland County, including on Kinder Morgan’s EPNG pipeline.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Fire collapses portion of interstate highway in Atlanta

A fire is shown out of control underneath a highway overpass on interstate 85 before a section of the highway collapsed, according to the city's fire and rescue agency in Atlanta, Georgia, March 30, 2017. Atlanta Fire Rescue/Handout via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A bridge on Interstate 85 in Atlanta collapsed on Thursday as a fire raged beneath it, authorities said, sending black smoke into the air and briefly causing a fireball before the structure fell in on itself.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in the incident, which snarled traffic for miles (km).

“We are trying to assess the damage and determine how quick we can repair it,” Republican Georgia Governor Nathan Deal told a news conference.

Black smoke billowed so thickly from the bridge in the heart of Atlanta that area residents told local media they thought a storm was coming or that the sun had set early when the fire started at around 6 p.m. local time.

Then flames rose several stories high from under the bridge before a section collapsed around 7:30 p.m., even as dozens of firefighters fought it, causing a brief fireball.

Hours after the collapse, vehicles were still stuck trying to get off the highway. Deal declared a state of emergency for Fulton County, which encompasses much of the Atlanta area. Government offices in Atlanta were set to open at 10 a.m. on Friday to give people extra time to get to work.

Deal said the fire that led to the highway collapse appeared to have been fueled by a large pile of PVC piping under the structure. Authorities did not know who owned the piping or who had put it under the bridge, Deal said.

All lanes of the freeway were blocked, and authorities urged motorists to stay away from the interstate in all directions.

“We cannot have any more traffic on the highway,” Atlanta Police Department Sergeant Warren Pickard told a news conference. “We need everyone to stay put and not travel at this time. We need the roads clear for emergency vehicles.”

Local TV images showed bright orange flames and thick black smoke billowing into the sky above the freeway as a line of cars stood halted on either side.

Traffic was jammed on nearby roads and freeways as well, according to online congestion maps.

Television station WSB-TV showed what appeared to be barrels and coils under the bridge.

The station reported that fire crews from nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were brought in to help and were spraying foam typically used for airplane crashes onto the flames.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Rigby)

Fireball Roars Through Bangkok Sky

Social media in Thailand was burning this morning with footage of a giant fireball that streaked through the Bangkok skies before exploding in a flash.

The object was captured during the city’s morning rush hour by dash and security cameras with the footage quickly uploaded to the internet.

Astrophysicists and other astronomic researchers said the item was mostly likely an asteroid.

“There is a high possibility that the object spotted this morning… on social media, is an object from outer space,” Saran Poshyachinda, Deputy Director of National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, told CNN.

“It looks like an asteroid traveling to Earth and grazing through the air and it turned into a fireball.”

“It was almost certainly a good-sized rock burning up in our atmosphere,” Phil Plait, a former member of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope Team, told the Bangkok Post. “It only took two seconds or so for it to go from being visible to it flaring as it disintegrated. It may have had a steep angle of entry.”

However, others are speculating that it was a satellite that was falling to Earth.  The website, which tracks “space junk”, had listed a satellite to fall into the atmosphere and burn up in that area during the window of time where the object was recorded.

Fireball Seen In Eastern Sky

A fireball was seen in the eastern sky by residents of Atlantic Coast states.

The American Meteor Society says that more than 330 reports have been recorded from people who saw a “huge, bright ball” streaking through the sky Monday night.

The fireball was seen from Maryland and Delaware through Montreal, Canada.

Some witnesses were able to capture video of the fireball through dashboard camera while they traveled on interstates.  One report from New Jersey said the driver thought at first they were looking at fireworks because of the intensity of the flame.

One New Hampshire resident reported seeing flames as if the object landed near them but no object was found.