Fire at Cuban Oil Terminal is Out, But Disruption is Just Beginning

Forensics specialists comb through the wreckage at Matanzas in search of the missing (Presidencia de Cuba)

Published Aug 12, 2022 10:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

The devastating fire at the Matanzas fuel oil terminal in Cuba is out, but the damage is far from over. The blaze took out four of the site's eight large storage tanks, impeding marine terminal operations and forcing tankers to divert to smaller ports.

The fire broke out last Friday night when lightning struck the facility, igniting one tank. A fierce, towering blaze spread gradually down the line for the next three days, igniting four tanks in one section. 130 people were injured in the incident, and at least two were confirmed dead as of midweek. The remains of four more deceased firefighters were located on Friday, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health reported, bringing the total to six. 

The damage at Matanzas adds to the already-dire situation of Cuba's oil-fired electrical grid. The island is now experiencing a 50 percent shortage of electrical power generating capacity, leading to persistent, daily rolling blackouts. Breakdowns at Cuba's aging thermal power plants are the primary cause, but the loss of half of the storage at Matanzas - Cuba's biggest petroleum import terminal, and the only one capable of handling tankers over 100,000 dwt - is adding supply-chain disruption to the problem. 

“The problem with [electricity generation] has not been the lack of fuel, but the plants are very old and have maintenance problems,” said Jorge Pinon, a Cuban energy policy expert at University of Texas, speaking to Al Jazeera. “Now they will also have a lack of fuel. If they lose Matanzas, they lose the ability to supply the power plants."

Already, AIS tracking shows that some tankers are diverting away from Matanzas to call at smaller ports. The inbound tanker NS Natanza with a load of Russian oil has diverted to the port of Antilla instead of Matanzas, according to Reuters. The Cuban-flagged tanker Maria Cristina has diverted to Santiago de Cuba, and a Venezuelan crude cargo aboard the tanker Vilma will be delivered to Antilla. These smaller vessels can readily change course; the unloading arrangements for larger tankers might require ship-to-ship transfers and lightering at smaller ports.

"The US is relieved that the Matanzas fire has been contained. We wish a speedy recovery to all the individuals and families who have been affected. We hope that any significant environmental impact on the people of Cuba can be easily mitigated," said the U.S. Embassy in Cuba in a statement.