A toxic chemical spill off the coast of Costa Rica that took place on May 3 left tourists and residents unable to swim, or fish in the ocean for 72 hours. The incident occurred after a barge carrying diesel fuel and 180 tons of ammonium nitrate, capsized due to rough Pacific seas around Puntarenas. The National Commission on Emergencies (CNE) issued a Red Alert soon after the spill for about one hundred kilometers of coastline, but downgraded it to a Yellow Alert the day after the spill, following a press conference. The Yellow Alert allowed for swimming, but still cautioned against fishing.
When dissolved in water, ammonium nitrate, primarily used as a high-nitrogen fertilizer, becomes extremely combustible. If humans come in contact with the chemical in high concentrations, it could induce vomiting, nausea, coughing, eye irritation, or difficulty breathing.
According to ammonium nitrate’s Material Safety Data Sheet, “If water courses are contaminated it may promote eutrophication and cause fish kills.” Eutrophication is the enrichment of an ecosystem with chemical nutrients, primarily phosphorus and nitrogen, causing excessive plant growth and greater competition for sunlight, space, and oxygen. Fertilizer runoff has caused algal blooms and dead zones all around the world, with some of the worst being off the eastern coast of the US, Gulf of Mexico, and the western coast of Europe. It is of great concern that the Costa Rican spill may cause such algal blooms as it disperses.
When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate is also used in industrial explosives, such as those needed for coal and metal mining and quarrying; as well as, less commonly, in improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
According to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd’s Technical Information Paper, “Response to Marine Chemical Incidents,” ammonium nitrate’s behaviour is classified as ‘sinker/dissolver’ and its main hazards are identified as ‘oxidizer/explosive.’ “An oxidising hazard may be presented by substances that in themselves are not necessarily combustible, but by providing oxygen may cause or contribute to the combustion of other material.” Even without the presence of oxygen, ammonium nitrate may increase the combustibility of other substances.
Costa Rica has an impressive environmental record and booming eco-tourism industry, ranking number one on the Happy Planet Index, which measures a nation’s ecological footprint in relation to the happiness of its citizens. They have no military, instead using such funds for environmental protection, healthcare, and education. That is why it comes as a surprise that such a progressive nation, in terms of ecological priorities, chooses to employ a “solution to pollution is dilution” approach to this toxic spill.
Last month marked the 5th anniversary of the BP Horizon oil spill, an explosion that left eleven dead and gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. There are still many unanswered questions regarding this historical incident, including how much oil was actually spilled, the effects on the deep sea, and how human health has been affected. Once the oil stopped washing ashore, most people stopped paying attention to the progress of the cleanup efforts, which many experts described as sorely lacking.
Chemical spills, though still less frequent than oil spills, have become a fairly normal, underreported occurrence in modern society, where the globalized markets necessitate transportation of all manner of product, toxic or not, via rail, air, and sea on a daily basis. In the case of a spill or explosion, most companies perform the bare minimum cleanup to appease local residents and officials, while the altered ecology is ignored.
Costa Rica has developed an international reputation for being an ecologically conscious country and would do well to take chemical spills into the ocean more seriously. Finding innovative ways to clean up, rather than simply disperse or ‘dilute’ chemicals and oil could vastly mitigate the adverse impacts such disasters have on marine life and ecology. Because we simply do not see the effects of such incidents does not mean they do not affect us, for much of what we consume is derived from the ocean. By analyzing the causes and effects of our mishaps, we can start to understand the complete life cycle of our resources.
Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy