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article imageMassive toxic chemical spill off Costa Rica coast sparks alert

By Megan Hamilton     May 5, 2015 in Environment
Puntarenas - In what may be an ecological disaster in the making, a ship carrying 180 tons of ammonium nitrate capsized and spilled the toxic chemical into the sea just off the coast of Puntarenas last Saturday.
It's also reported that the vessel did not possess valid navigation permits, said the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) on Monday, Inside Costa Rica reports.
This ship, along with six other vessels were all found to have certification and navigation permits that had expired in July 2014, and all were owned by the Costa Rican agrochemical company Fertica, Luis Fernando Coronado, director of the Port Maritime Division told reporters.
The company managed to operate by "making use of legal loopholes," Coronado told La Nacion, Inside Costa Rica reports. Now, Fertica and its officials may face penalties of up to three years in prison and fines for environmental damage, according to the report.
Authorities say that the spill could produce a "red tide" during the next three days, and this may pose a threat to marine life. Also, as ammonia breaks down, it consumes oxygen and this spill has the potential for causing a "dead zone" of oxygen-depleted water that could kill marine life in the area.
Questions remain as to why it took authorities 12 hours to declare a "red alert" and an additional five hours to alert the public to the spill, Inside Costa Rica notes here.
This means it took 17 hours to warn the public to keep out of the water at a time when the beaches were jam-packed with vacationers during the long Labor Day weekend. The warning didn't go out until 7:33 a.m. Sunday morning, but the spill occurred on Saturday around 2:30 p.m.
Map showing Puntarenas  where the toxic spill occurred.
Map showing Puntarenas, where the toxic spill occurred.
Google Maps
A swimming ban implemented by authorities was lifted by late Sunday, lowering the alert level to "yellow," but a fishing ban for the Gulf of Nicoya will stay in place until Wednesday, while authorities conduct water analysis to determine when fishing can be resumed, Inside Costa Rica reports.
The vessel was apparently struck by a huge wave which capsized the ship about one kilometer from a lighthouse in Puntarenas. In addition to the ammonium nitrate, the ship was carrying 90 gallons of diesel fuel. Two crew members on board the ship were safely rescued.
An inquiry regarding the sinking of the ship and resultant spillage is underway, The Costa Rica News reports.
If inhaled, ammonium nitrate can cause a cough, headache or sore throat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. If ingested, this toxic chemical can cause abdominal pain, blue lips or fingernails, blue skin, convulsions, diarrhea, dizziness, vomiting, and weakness.
Ammonium nitrate is commonly used to manufacture fertilizers and explosives, AFP reports.
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