Omoa Beach Smells of Gas, Impunity and Corruption
The gas terminal belonging to a Mexican company
guilty of evading Honduran taxes is damaging and putting at risk
people, animals, plants, water, beaches, seas and monuments.
While official institutions have a passive attitude toward all this,
an Italian who loves Honduras more than many Hondurans
is taking on the company, impunity and general corruption
from what he calls “the last beach of my life.”
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Omoa is a port in the department of Cortés that looks out on the Honduran Caribbean. To the west, the imposing Merendón mountain range separating Honduras from Guatemala dies out almost at Omoa’s feet. The area is also crossed by the active Motagua geological fault, named for a river that starts in Guatemala and flows through Honduras into the Caribbean.
Despite having one of the most enchanting beaches in the area, Omoa is best-known for its ruined fortifications. It is very close to Puerto Cortés, originally baptized Puerto Caballos (Horses Port) by Pedro de Alvarado, the great conquistador Hernán Cortés’ strongman. Legend has it that when Alvarado landed there in the early years of the Spanish conquest, most of his horses died of a strange disease.
The Spanish later pushed inland looking for mines and natives to traffic as slaves. In 1756 they started to build a fortress to stop English and French pirates taking a territory rich in minerals and slave labor. The fortress was been recognized as a monument in 1872 and is currently listed as part of the nation’s Cultural Heritage. Its beaches and this cultural enclave make Omoa an excellent tourist zone.
A gorgeous tourist attractionBut an industrial installation belonging to the Mexican transnational Gas del Caribe is also operating in Omoa. It in turn is part of the Mexican TOMZA group of the powerful Zaragoza family, which imports, warehouses and distributes liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) nationally and to other countries in the area. The storage center for this fuel—a mixture of propane and butane—has the capacity to hold 8 million gallons of hydrocarbon in four giant 1.5-million-gallon spheres and 32 sausage-shaped cylinders.
and an ugly, powerful company
The Environmental Evaluation and Control Directorate of Honduras’ Natural Resource and Environment Secretariat (SERNA) warned in a March 2007 Technical Report (201/2007) that “the initiation of operations of the LPG tanks has the potential to seriously damage the environment. It is our duty to prevent this in order to guarantee the right of present and future generations to a healthy environment and to protect the fundamental rights of the inhabitants of Omoa.”
This industrial project has already damaged the area’s ecosystem in several ways, some of them irreversible. The company’s norm has been to repeatedly ignore the mitigation measures prescribed by SERNA, openly violating the most basic constitutional guarantees and international agreements and treaties.
Massimo Parisi: “Gas del Caribe has been operating here illegally for over 20 years, since 1986,” explains Massimo Parisi, an Italian of some 70 years old. “Since it set up in the country it has defrauded the Honduran state of hundreds of millions of lempiras in the form of unpaid taxes.” A journalist by profession, Parisi is now based around the beaches of Omoa and is married to a Honduran woman named Isabel Sharp.
Searching for paradise
He ended up in Omoa through a mixture of adventure and love. Politically linked to Italian Christian Democracy, he arrived in Central America via Guatemala in the mid-eighties as an assistant to Christian Democratic President Vinicio Cerezo. He crossed over to Honduras in 1990, egged on by adventure and a nose for news, waiting to return to an Italy trapped in its customary political turbulence. He set up in Puerto Cortés, during which time his political reference points gradually disappeared, including those of his party. In 1993 he met Isabel, a native of the small Siguatepeque plateau in central Honduras. He fell in love, decided to burn his bridges and four years later went with his wife to live in Omoa, investing all of his savings in an Italian restaurant and setting out on his family adventure.
The start of Parisi’s life in Omoa was paradisiacal, with a lulling breeze from the Caribbean Sea. But soon he and Isabel started to discover from their restaurant “Punto Italia” that paradise in Omoa was surrounded by hell, invaded by the smell of gas from the four big Gas del Caribe spheres.
In one of life’s strange little coincidences, it was right as Parisi arrived in Central America that the Zaragoza emporium convinced then-President Azcona Hoyos to open up his country’s doors and Omoa’s beaches for Gas del Caribe to install its storage facilities in the same place that Parisi would later choose as the place to live out his final years.
For Parisi’s and 8,000 other livesMassimo Parisi decided to fight for his own life and that of Omoa’s 8,000 inhabitants threatened by the company’s gas. After several years of intense struggle, SERNA’s Environmental Evaluation and Control Directorate (DECA) ruled that the company was putting the citizens’ lives in jeopardy, damaging the San Bernardo de Omoa fortress and ruining the flora and fauna of the area’s sea and mountain ecosystem.
The environmentalists Parisi pulled together calculate that in caloric terms, the 8 million gallons of LPG that can be stored in the Omoa terminal have the equivalent of eight times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. They also estimate that the Gas del Caribe installations have seriously affected a 7,000-meter radius, including the beautiful Centeno Lagoon and the species it contains, as well as utterly destroying a patch of around 650 meters.
Anonymous threats in Honduras,Massimo Parisi’s voice rises firmly as he explains that “we’re asking that Gas del Caribe’s operating agreement be annulled and that the Supreme Court take a stand.” Holding his wife’s hand tightly, he tells envío that “this company never had an environmental, demographic or subsoil impact study done. In other words, it built against the law by not using logbooks and without supervision by the Natural Resource and Environment Secretariat.”
serious denunciations in Mexico
Parisi has been undaunted by the anonymous threats he’s received from various sources, which would terrify anyone, particularly given the alleged history of both the company and its owners. The following example of that history is from an article in the Mexican daily La Crónica on December 11, 2004: “LP gas distribution businessman Tomás Zaragoza, owner of the TOMZA group, is ending the year with many accusations against him for presumed involvement not only in bad commercial practices, but also in the lamentable case of the Juárez deaths [a series of unresolved murders of young women in Ciudad Juárez].”
La Cronica went on to say that “in different places where the TOMZA group and its affiliates operate, complaints have been made by other companies and consumers alleging that Tomás Zaragoza’s firm has stolen gas cylinders, insufficiently trained its personnel and lacks adequate prevention systems and infrastructure to respond to contingencies. To top it all, there are accusations that it has sold tanks with less than the specified amount of fuel. As well as hurting consumers’ pockets, TOMZA is putting at risk the safety of the communities in which it operates. In fact, some LP gas explosions in Guadalajara have been attributed to that company.
“No authority has done anything to stop TOMZA, let alone sanction it… Furthermore, the mother of one of the women killed in Juárez has bravely charged someone close to Tomás Zaragoza with the presumed guilt in those crimes…. [The bodies of] at least six young women murdered in the Juárez region have been found on land belonging to the Zaragoza family, along with huge amounts of marihuana, without the authorities or the prosecuting attorney on the case following up that line of investigation.”
“I’m afraid of an explosion”“It scares me being mixed up in this affair,” says Parisi’s wife Isabel with a hint of shyness. “I’m afraid that any day one of those tanks might explode in our lives. It’s that fear that makes me defend my family’s life and I support my husband with all my heart.”
Isabel also told envío of her fear of the death threats they’ve received. “The last one was a few days ago. We were in the restaurant when a car with polarized glass drew up and with its engine still running two men got out and walked over to one of the waiters. They stood in front of him and told him to tell us to leave because the next time they visited they’d kill us.”
In his personal investigations and those conducted with other environmentalists, Massimo Parisi has learned—and denounced—the fact that top company officials hired a general contractor names Tony Pedro, who is currently on the run for illegally practicing as a civil engineer in Honduras, to construct these dangerous storage works. In addition, says Parisi, “our investigations have uncovered proof that Gas del Caribe falsified documents to participate in the public bidding to provide fuels.”
Protected by no less thanMassimo Parisi headed up the creation of an environmental foundation called Fundambiente, out of which he has done more patriotic work than most Hondurans. His denunciations finally got current SERNA Minister Mayra Mejía to announce last March that at least 50 impacts had been identified in the Gas del Caribe installations with potentially negative repercussions on the health of Omoa’s inhabitants and the area’s natural wealth of biological, historical and archeological value. However, a hand much more powerful than the minister’s has blocked any decision to suspend implementation of the company’s operations.
President Zelaya himself
For Parisi, “That hand can only belong to President Zelaya. I spoke to him personally and he told me he wouldn’t allow suspension of those installations because his interests and relations with the Mexican government were at stake.” He recalls the President telling him that he and the environmentalists should bring an international suit against the Honduran state if they wanted; but that he wasn’t going put his relations with the Mexican government and capital at risk. He said he wasn’t worried about an international suit: ‘At the end of the day it’s a demand against the state and in two and a half years I’ll no longer be President.’” Looking at his wife and wringing his hands in frustration, Parisi adds, “A small example of the kind of statesman Hondurans elect as President.”
“It’s all been illegal”“I want to stress,” says Parisi, “that the documentation in our hands and the contract ceding rights to that transnational, granted by the National Port Enterprise in 1986, show that Gas del Caribe’s operations have been totally illegal right from the start. That Mexican transnational was never authorized. It bought a tourist property in Omoa from a manager of the National Port Enterprise, but never had permission to import, store, distribute and export LPG. And for absolutely no legitimate reason, Gas del Caribe used the free trade zone system to avoid paying enormous amounts of taxes to the government, which could be estimated at up to 870 million lempiras.”
Parisi has sought the support of different environment defense organizations and personalities and has persuaded various honest law professionals and Father Andrés Tamayo, who heads the Olancho Environmentalist Movement, to identify with and join Fundambiente.
In conversations with a small group of jurists, Parisi looks at a map of Honduras and, pointing to the Caribbean coast of Omoa, warns that “not even in the cruelest times of the Spanish conquest has there been so much criminal exploitation with such a high level of corruptibility as in the Gas del Caribe case. This exposes both the corruption of that transnational and the fragility, corruption and impunity of public officials who claim to believe in and defend the rule of law.”
A highly dangerous gas Gas del Caribe has set up its LPF import and storage operations in an area surrounded by residential houses and a few productive centers. It is also right alongside both a very vulnerable ecosystem, including the historical Centeno Lagoon, and an area with the greatest number of tourists in the municipality of Omoa. The plant was originally granted two environmental licenses—currently out of date and being renewed—to increase its storage capacity, even though the place was inhabited, active and productive before the plant’s installation. This places the population’s physical integrity at risk and severely reduces both the quality of life and tourist activity, which is practically the only source of income. The population also feels at constant risk from what is unanimously considered to be the most dangerous hydrocarbon because it spreads rapidly and has a low ignition point and high asphyxiating potential.
in an inhabited area
As it is denser than air, it tends to spread near the ground like a cloud, causing dizziness and asphyxia. But Its greatest danger lies in that low ignition point. It only takes the spark from a light switch or even a watch battery to produce fire or an explosion. A concentration of only 10% of LPG in the air is enough to cause combustion with terrible results.
Damaged beaches and lagoonThe zone’s ecosystem has already been affected. Beaches have effectively disappeared behind a stone wall built on the strip of land considered unalienable state property. As mentioned in the technical reports, the tide smacks right up against the wall, as the margin of ten meters from the highest tide stipulated in the Municipalities Law has been ignored. Nor was permission requested to build the wall, which has had a serious impact on the Chachaguala River from which tons of stone were extracted to fill gabions—also not authorized by any relevant authority.
The ecosystem of the Centeno Lagoon alongside the industrial plant has also been seriously affected. The lagoon provides a habitat for migratory birds and has three species of mangrove. According to international conservation organizations, these species are threatened by the rupture of the lagoon’s sand bar to construct a breakwater—again without state authorization. As a result, sea water now enters the estuary, irreversibly damaging the flora and fauna.
The LPG storage plant is just 300 meters from the San Fernando Fortress and reports from the Honduran Anthropology and Tourism Institute indicate that the flow of international visitors to the area has dropped off. Should there ever be a gas leak, this Honduran cultural heritage would be lost forever.
Everybody knows the danger The company, supported by the powerful forces protecting it, intends to continue operating despite the threat it poses to the area’s people and ecosystem, its lack of adequate safety conditions, two expired environmental licenses and total failure to comply with any of the mitigation measures established by SERNA. All this has been cited in the three control and follow-up reports done in three consecutive years, in which the company accumulated 40 misdemeanors.
is imminent and multifaceted
In addition to all of this, the Gas del Caribe installations are in an area that is vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as heavy seas, hurricanes and flooding. Because the approximately 1.5 meter high wall is closer than ten meters from the highest normal tide, the waves went over it during hurricanes Fifi and Mitch.
The subterranean marine currents are gradually undermining the area occupied by the company, a fact admitted in a document in SERNA’s case file. Any increase in sea level resulting from global warming will increase the risk of major damages to the LPG storage facilities. The threat is real and irremediable.
The land is also susceptible to earthquakes, as Mother Nature demonstrated just a few months ago. The Motagua geological fault passes through the town of Omoa and is altered by the constant movement of tectonic plates due to the release of energy in the Pacific Ocean around El Salvador. Because the soil structure is made up of materials transported and deposited by currents, the ground is unstable and won’t be able to support heavy structures such as the tanks and spheres in the event of a sizable seismic incident.
The owners of Gas del Caribe know all this, as do the public authorities from the SERNA minister and the Environmental Ombudsman’s Office right up to the President. So why are they allowing this company to continue operating in a place where danger is imminent?
Why doesn’t the government act?SERNA’s technicians took a stand in their 260-2006 Findings Report, which said that Gas del Caribe couldn’t continue operating in Omoa Bay because it was placing the lives of 8,000 citizens in danger. Other public institutions serving the public, including the Permanent Contingencies Commission, Fire Department, Attorney General’s Office and Ombudsmen’s Office, have reached the same conclusion. Even the National Congress unanimously agreed to the terminal’s relocation nearly a year ago, on November 28, 2006. So why has this parliamentary ruling never been implemented?
Almost a year and a half after SERNA ruled that Gas del Caribe was unsuitably located, its minister sidestepped acting on Report 260. Despite the disastrous results of new inspections, she preferred to invent non-existent “new conditions” and offer the challenged company the extraordinary opportunity to obtain new licenses and conducted an environmental audit using technicians hired and paid by the company itself. Meanwhile, SERNA’s file on Gas del Caribe went missing.
Minister Mejía has argued against any prohibition under the perverse principle of “respecting investment” and is demanding “absolute scientific certainty” of imminent damage as a condition for relocating the plant. But if Gas del Caribe is not forced to relocate, the Honduran government would become responsible for relocating 8,000 inhabitants at an estimated cost of 22.8 million lempiras and could face an international judicial case against it that is solidly backed by institutional opinions.
Principle 15 of the Declaration of Río, promoted by the United Nations and signed by Honduras in 1992 states: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
The lessons of other catastrophesNumerous tragic events have been recorded during the unloading, storage and transportation of this kind of gas, with the loss of many human lives as well as injuries and significant material damage.
The best-recorded case happened in a residential area on the outskirts of Mexico City known as San Juan de Ixhuatepec, when 650 people died, 2,500 were injured and over 350,000 evacuated. According to official data, a fire on November 19, 1984, caused by a break in an eight-inch pipe, reached the storage plant containing a number of large tanks and six small spheres, which exploded. The shock wave alone affected 20 hectares. The amount of LPG stored there was just a fifth of the capacity in Omoa and the plant employed the same technology.
Another incident in 2003 resulted in fewer casualties: six deaths and four serious injuries in the Spanish city of Puerto Llano. The investigating commission’s report determined that the terminal had passed all the reviews conducted by the relevant administrative authorities, complied with all corresponding industrial, environmental and municipal authorizations, permits and licenses and had state-of-the-art security technology, with 827 gas and explosion detectors. But notwithstanding all these precautions, the accident still happened.
As the quote from the Declaration of Río shows, the modern trend for determining natural or anthropic contingencies leans toward risk evaluation, as natural risks are considered predictable and anthropic ones calculable. The calculation in the Gas del Caribe case is that 8,000 people could be directly affected. That number would increase to 40,000 during public holidays due to the large numbers of people at the beach. The World Health Organization establishes that a population risk can be considered acceptable only if it has a probability of affecting just one person in every million.
A passion for justiceMassimo Parisi continues to dream, even in the midst of the frustrations involved in a struggle that has never been linear, but rather lurches from side to side, sometimes becoming too entangled and sinuous. Several demonstrations have been held with Omoa’s inhabitants and with other Honduran environmental organizations, but people aren’t always steadfast and public officials allow themselves to be easily bribed. “There’s almost no authority who won’t succumb to money,” says Parisi bitterly.
But he’s adamant that he won’t let himself give up. “I don’t want to lose my dreams,” he explains, “and it’s my duty to do something for people who don’t want to recognize the danger. This municipality will disappear if its Councilors act as if they were a few more employees of Gas del Caribe and residents also let themselves be bought off easily by the company, whose officials and owners are expert bribers. Gas del Caribe has an enormous capacity to prostitute human volition.”
“I accept that I have a personal stake in all of this,” he adds. “I’m moved by the fact that my life and that of my family is in real danger. I’m moved by the fact I can no longer live off my restaurant because fewer tourists come now. And I’m also moved by my character and my convictions.”
The passion for justice shines out of Massimo Parisi’s eyes. He’s a passionate Italian who’s had a thrilling life. In the 1960s he participated in the efforts to get Germans over the Berlin Wall and lived to tell about it. It is with that same dedication that he’s fighting to get Gas del Caribe relocated.
The last beach of my lifeParisi concludes with this: “I can’t stand injustice when I see it. I couldn’t stand the injustice in my country and it got me in serious trouble, and I still can’t take injustice. But now, fighting against this injustice is a matter of my own survival. I came here, built my house and set up my restaurant because I dreamed that Omoa would be the last beach of my life. Gas del Caribe shattered that dream. My desire is to recover that dream of living out the last years of my life on this beach. I want to continue dreaming. And only with a lot of people on board will we stop Gas del Caribe from stealing our dream.
“I don’t want to be a doom-monger. I never have been. I’ve been a man of hope, always finding hope where nothing suggested it. But there’s going to be a disaster here in Omoa. And I don’t want to die a victim of that forewarned disaster. I want to die covered by the sea of my last beach.”
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.