Storm triggers chemical leak fear

  • 2005-01-19
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - The hurricane-strength winds that knocked out electricity and caused flooding across much of the Baltic states on Jan. 9 forced many Ventspils residents to flee their homes in panic. Their fear: a storage facility holding toxic chemicals that was supposedly damaged and could have exploded.

The situation escalated with conflicting reports. On Jan. 18 Environmental Minister Raimonds Vejonis called for an emergency investigation of two facilities, particularly the ammonia-storage facility, Ventamonjaks. The natural-gas storage facility in Incukalns outside Riga, which also briefly lost power, would also be examined.

"One of the tasks of the [inspection] commission will be to assess whether something could go wrong there [at Ventamonjaks]," Didzis Jonovs, spokesman for Vejonis, told the Baltic News Service.

When the storm hit, power went out at Ventamonjaks, and the independent energy generator used to cool the ammonia did not work properly, sparking the scare. Company officials later claimed that the facility had not been a threat, and that other technologies had kept the chemicals out of danger.

It was also revealed that Ventamonjaks was not insured.

Ammonia, which is widely used in fertilizers, explosives and plastics, can also prove fatal if breathed in large quantities. Residents feared an outright explosion, which can occur with ammonia under certain conditions.

Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs publicly claimed that the corporation had not been a threat, "not even for one moment." He said he was familiar with the situation at the company since he had worked there at one time.

In an opinion piece in Diena, Aivars Ozolins called for the Cabinet of Ministers to form a committee to investigate why the company was not following safety rules and why Ventamonjaks could have turned into "Kurzemes Chernobyl."

Calls for an examination of the facility were made by other top officials, including Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins, but it was unclear where the final authority lay since neither Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis nor Karins wished to create an inter-ministry task force.

According to EU regulations, member states are required to ensure the security of dangerous businesses and conduct a safety review. A 2004 review of Ventamonjaks claimed that the site was "unsafe but does not have to be closed." However, since a loss of power was deemed unlikely, an extra backup generator was not brought in. They also said the generator had not been working for a while.

After the scare, company officials met with Ventspils residents and promised to share more public information concerning the structure's safety in the future. Officials also denied there was ever a leak in the ammonia facility, adding that there was no possibility that it could have exploded.

Speaking to Diena, Arnis Janvars, president of Ventarmonjaks, said the company was not searching for employees who might have set off the panic. He also denied that the city government had pressed for an internal investigation.

Still, that did not prevent many from fleeing town in the middle of the storm to Kuldiga and Riga to avoid what they believed was an oncoming cataclysm. The massive storm whipped winds up to 40 meters a second in Ventspils and caused 6.4 million lats (9.14 million euros) in damage to local municipalities, according to the Regional Development Ministry.

The national energy crisis declared shortly after the storm was nearly over by Jan. 13, when over 90 percent of the country had regained power, the government announced on Jan. 17.