Sugar Mill Poses Explosive Risk
Sugar Mill Poses Explosive Risk
HAVANA, (IPS) – One of the main industrial sugar refining complexes in
the province of Matanzas, in the west of Cuba, has been blamed for an
underground build-up of methane gas and other violations of
environmental law that are putting thousands of families in the area at
The case came to light after it was reported in an extensive article in
the daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde – the press in Cuba is a government
monopoly – which included the testimonies of many residents and experts,
who confirm the threat posed by the pollution caused by the Jesús Rabí
agroindustrial complex in Calimete, a municipality in Matanzas with a
population of 30,000.
According to the experts, the company’s refinery and distillery both
discharge their untreated waste into the same ditch, contaminating the
groundwater. “This is improper waste disposal, and the main problem is
the distillery,” a source in the Sugar Ministry told IPS.
When they leak down into the subsoil, the waste products create
underground pockets of methane, a colourless gas that is inflammable
when mixed with air. The methane is produced by anaerobic digestion (in
the absence of oxygen) by methanogenic bacteria that break down
“At the start of the rainy season when the groundwater level rises, the
water reaches the gas pockets and compresses the methane, which is
forced up to the surface,” chemical engineer Manuel Pereira told the
And Jorge Luis Bregio, a government official in Calimete who used to
work for the Jesús Rabí company, said that when the weather was cold,
methane gas accumulated inside the roof spaces of houses, “as if it were
in a fume hood.” The gas came up between the floor tiles, through chinks
in walls and floors, or into courtyards through tiny cracks in the
ground, he said.
“I knew of a person who went into a cave, and was almost asphyxiated by
the presence of methane gas before he was brought out,” Alberto Pino,
who lives 10 kilometres away from the Jesús Rabí complex, told IPS by
Other residents of Matanzas said on Tuesday that they had not yet
obtained a copy of Juventud Rebelde, but that they were keen on reading
The Sunday, May 7 edition of Juventud Rebelde reported the testimony of
María del Carmen Herrera, who suffered serious burns on her arms, back
and legs from a fire in her bathroom. During a blackout, she attempted
to light her way with a cigarette lighter, and the gas caused an explosion.
In the past, some people used the gas emerging from pits in the ground
to improvise open air cooking fires. “Nowadays it seems that the methane
is going elsewhere, because of the ditch they dug at the complex, but we
do not know who will be harmed in future. The Calimete area has a lot of
caves,” said Raimundo Rodríguez, another local resident.
“Methane is highly dangerous and can cause explosions. In fact, there
have been explosions at other times and places,” an expert in the field,
who wished to remain anonymous, told IPS.
Oscar Santalla, an expert, told the newspaper that for the past several
years, because of “technical shortcomings,” the distillery waste has
been very acidic, and when added to the sugar mill waste, it cannot be
used for “fertigation”, a technique combining fertilisation and
irrigation which would boost sugarcane yields and curtail pollutants.
In fertigation, liquid wastes from the refinery, distillery wastes and
the must from cultivating torula yeast (Candida utilis) are applied
directly to crops.
Esperanza Valdés, director of the National Centre for Environmental
Management for the sugar industry and its derivatives, confirmed that
the Jesús Rabí complex and seven other sugar agribusinesses have been
given financing for fertigation projects, which make good use of their
The director-general of the complex, Tomás Zamora, whom IPS was unable
to contact by telephone, told Juventud Rebelde that the refinery has
already received some of the materials for setting up five irrigation
systems that make use of Brazilian technology..
In his opinion, the problem is close to being solved, because the system
will permit “recovery of the lakes, and treatment of the waste water.”
The distillery waste must be decanted from one tank to another, until it
is suitable for use in fertigation.
But until such time as the proposed solutions take effect, municipal
authorities are afraid that the drinking water for people in the area
might become polluted, due to the impact of the untreated waste in the
soil and groundwater. Some wells are already fit only for irrigation.
There are two wells in the area that provide drinking water for 4,700
people, more than 2,000 of whom – comprising 685 households – live in
the Rabí “batey” (community living in the factory compound). In Matanzas
province, 48 percent of the water is derived from the surface, and the
rest is groundwater.
Research by the University of Havana Cuban Centre for Economic Studies
(CEEC) found that the main pollution problem posed by the sugar industry
is the discharge of liquid wastes by sugar mills, refineries, torula
yeast factories and distilleries.
These industries are spread throughout most of the municipalities in
this Caribbean island nation, and to a greater or lesser extent they
have an impact on river basins, bays, coastal areas and inland waters,
and also affect the soils around their waste ditches, when these are in
However, Santiago Rodríguez Castellón, who has written a research report
on this subject, said that the programme for restructuring the sugar
industry, which began in 2002, could contribute to the improvement of
environmental management and to “changing the socio-economic
perspective” on ecological problems.
It is estimated that the 157 sugar mills existent in the mid-1970s used
to discharge an average of 36 million cubic metres of liquid waste a
year into their surroundings.
The restructuring of what was for decades the country’s top industry has
left only 71 active sugar mills, 14 honey producing businesses, 25
companies that combine agriculture and livestock, 13 distilleries and 11
torula yeast factories. Around 40 sugar mills took part in this year’s
The Jesús Rabí complex, one of the three agribusinesses in Matanzas
which contributed to this year’s harvest, has been admonished on several
occasions for environmental practices that contravened decree-law No.
200 of 1999.