Lockdown lifted in Spain’s La Palma, volcanic eruption keeps airport shut

MADRID (Reuters) – Authorities on the Spanish island of La Palma on Wednesday lifted lockdown on three coastal towns as toxic fumes from the lava flowing into the sea partly dissipated, but the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano showed no signs of abating.

The red-hot molten rock continued to gush along the western flanks of the volcano, which has been erupting since Sept. 19, and the pace of daily earth tremors is yet to slow down.

La Palma airport remained closed since the weekend, and footage released by airport operator Aena showed staff shovelings tonnes of black ash from the runway.

“If the eruption intensity doesn’t diminish, it is most likely to keep affecting La Palma airport,” said Carmen Lopez, who heads the National Geographic Institute’s geophysical monitoring program.

Local authorities on Monday forced residents of three coastal towns to stay indoors as a third tongue of lava hit the sea sending thick clouds of vapor and smoke high into the sky.

The cloud is less dense now, said Miguel Angel Morcuende, technical director of the Canary Islands Volcanic Emergency Plan.

“However, we recommend that people living near where the lava flow reaches the sea to wear the FFP2 masks and stay protected to prevent any problem,” he told reporters.

The lava solidifying as it crashes into the water has expanded the island’s surface by some 46 hectares, according to the authorities.

It has engulfed 1,073 hectares of land so far, according to the EU satellite monitoring system Copernicus. The eruption has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,700 buildings, forcing the evacuation of thousands from their homes on the island.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro and Emma Pinedo, editing by Andrei Khalip and Mike Collett-White)

Lava from La Palma volcano burns cement plant, prompting lockdown

LA PALMA, Spain (Reuters) – A stream of red-hot lava gushing from the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma engulfed a cement plant on Monday, raising a thick cloud of smoke and prompting authorities to order people in the area into lockdown.

Local emergency service instructed residents in the towns of El Paso and Los Llanos de Aridane to remain indoors, and to shut their windows, shades and air conditioning devices to avoid inhaling toxic fumes from the burning plant as it was being gradually swallowed by the lava.

“Lock down, if possible, in the most inner rooms,” the emergency service said via its Twitter account.

Miguel Angel Morcuende, the technical director of the Canary Islands Volcanic Emergency Plan said the fire at the plant had “produced a very dense smoke that sullied the air.”

The area affected by the lava in the eruption that began on Sept. 19 has expanded 10% overnight, reaching nearly 600 hectares, he said.

Following the partial collapse of the volcano’s cone on Saturday, a new river of lava streamed towards the sea, devouring banana and avocado plantations and most of the remaining houses in the town of Todoque.

Torrents of molten rock have destroyed 1,186 buildings in the three weeks since the eruption, the Canary Islands Volcanic Institute said.

About 6,000 people have been evacuated from their homes on La Palma, which has about 83,000 inhabitants.

(Reporting by Silvio Castellanos, Juan Medina, writing by Inti Landauro; editing by Andrei Khalip and Bernadette Baum)

Deadly political calculations: Why India isn’t fixing its toxic smog problem

A boy rides a bullock cart as smoke billows from paddy waste stubble as it burns in a field near Jewar, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain

By Neha Dasgupta and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – As pollution levels surged to “severe” and “hazardous” levels in New Delhi, India this week, there was little sign that residents of India’s teeming capital were doing much to protect themselves.

The smog, which is expected to worsen in the next few days, exposed people to as much as 24 times the recommended limits for dangerous particles on Monday. But unlike in many Chinese cities, where face masks are a common sight when smog levels spike, it is still rare to see locals taking measures to reduce their exposure.

Toddlers stand at school bus stops in crisply ironed uniforms, while security guards, street sweepers, and rickshaw drivers spend many hours outside breathing in filthy air – all without any attempt at protection.

Ask middle-class residents whether they have air purifiers in their homes and the answer is invariably no.

This is despite the extensive coverage of the capital’s pollution crisis by local media, including numerous warnings from doctors about massive health hazards, especially for children, the sick and the elderly.

The apparent lack of concern about the toxic air – whether through ignorance, apathy or the blinding impact of poverty -gives federal and local politicians the cover they need for failing to vigorously address the problem, said pollution activists, social scientists, and political experts.

Neither the governing party at federal level nor the main opposition are in power in the capital, giving them little incentive to cooperate with the city authorities.

And while Delhi may have a population of more than 20 million, its importance at voting time – a national election is due by May next year – is insignificant in comparison with states such as neighboring Uttar Pradesh, which has 220 million.

“The tragedy is that there is no political will at all either on the part of the federal government or the state government of Delhi and, as a result, we can see both blaming each other for the crisis that we are in,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political polling expert. “Whatever little government action you get to see is because of the pressure that environmental activists and the Supreme Court get to exert.”

COCKTAIL OF FUMES

India’s problems with smog extend far beyond Delhi – the nation of 1.3 billion has 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.

But in the capital, at least, this was the year the problem was supposed to be addressed.

After a cocktail of toxic fumes enveloped the area in October and November last year, the Delhi city government declared it a public health emergency and its Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described the Indian capital as a “gas chamber”. Officials of the federal government said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office had asked them to ensure that it did not happen again.

But steps taken so far have failed to make much difference, and now there is finger-pointing between Modi’s administration, the Delhi city government, and the governments of states around the capital.

As this year’s crisis has worsened, environment ministers from Punjab and Haryana – whose farmers’ stubble-burning is a major contributor to the haze – failed to turn up for a meeting called by the federal environment ministry last week, sending their civil servants instead.

The farmers have been torching their fields as they get ready for new plantings, despite being offered government subsidies on machinery that would allow them to mulch the material into the ground without lighting fires.

Farmers say the subsidies were not enough to cover the price of the machinery, the cost of running it, and the additional labor needed, especially given higher fuel prices.

India had planned to reduce crop burning by up to 70 percent this year but only a 30 percent drop has been visible so far, according to a government statement last Thursday.

Blaming that as the main reason behind New Delhi’s poisonous air, a spokesman for the city government said: “We can’t take steps in isolation in Delhi; we can’t build a wall.”

The federal government, meanwhile, has attacked the city for doing little to control pollution from dust, vehicles, and industries.

Certainly, there has been little done to reduce the number of heavily polluting vehicles on the roads in and around Delhi despite threats that have been made but not followed through, including one from the Supreme Court-appointed Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) to ban all private vehicles from the city.

And while the nation’s top court has issued a ruling trying to restrict the use of fireworks on the night of the Hindu festival Diwali, which is on Wednesday, few expect it to be enforced. For one thing, the court’s edict that only “green”, less-polluting firecrackers can be let off between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. is likely to be ignored because there are no “green” fireworks for sale in the city.

People pass by an installation of an artificial model of lungs to illustrate the effect of air pollution outside a hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. Picture taken November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

People pass by an installation of an artificial model of lungs to illustrate the effect of air pollution outside a hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. Picture taken November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

WAKE-UP CALL?

Most officials expect to wake up to even worse pollution on Nov. 8, as smoke from the festivities mixes with the smog from other sources to create a deadly cocktail. Light seasonal winds and a lack of rain at this time of year means pollution can linger for weeks, as it did last year.

But Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is more concerned about the impact of weak farm incomes, high fuel prices, and whether job creation has been adequate as issues at the polls.

“A holistic approach in the current climate is difficult to envisage as political divisiveness means that politicians are not looking for enduring solutions,” said Pavan K Varma, an official from a regional party in the state of Bihar and former diplomat who lives in Delhi.

Neither is it in the BJP’s interests, or in the interest of the main opposition Congress party, to help Kejriwal’s New Delhi government. In 2015, Kejriwal’s anti-establishment Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, crushed the BJP and Congress to take control of the city.

For Delhi’s doctors it is a nightmare.

This year, the number of patients with severe lung problems has already gone up by up by 25 percent and is expected to increase further after Diwali, said Doctor Desh Deepak, a chest physician at government-run Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.

“It’s tragic that children are suffering and we’ll destroy a whole generation if we don’t take cognizance of the fact that pollution needs to be tackled on a war footing,” said Dr Neeraj Jain, head of chest medicine at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi.

A woman waits to receive treatment for respiratory issues at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

A woman waits to receive treatment for respiratory issues at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in New Delhi, India, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Dipankar Gupta, a leading sociologist who has written books on Indian society, said only heavy state intervention was likely to solve the problem. He pointed to an improvement in the pollution levels in Beijing last year because of strict government measures to curb polluting industries near the Chinese capital.

But that state crackdown still seems a long way from happening in India. The EPCA has announced a variety of steps between Nov. 1-10 as part of an emergency package, including the use of water sprinklers and a complete ban on construction.

But most environmental experts say it is far too little, too late, and is not addressing the biggest pollution sources.

Modi has not publicly addressed the health crisis that has engulfed the capital.

The grim prognosis means that foreign organizations, including embassies in Delhi, are finding it difficult to get top talent to come to the city.

“Staff with young children are increasingly choosing not to come which wasn’t the┬ácase a few years ago,” a Western diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Most of the city’s residents are poor, however, and more worried about making enough money to buy food than pollution.

“The daily grind … leaves no room to think about the haze and smog,” said Vimla Devi, who works as a maid in the suburbs of Delhi.

(Additional reporting by David Stanway in BEIJING; Edited by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)