MEXICO CITY – Two more people have died of injuries received when an illegal tap of a fuel pipeline in the central state of Hidalgo led to an explosion, bringing the death toll from the incident to 117, the Mexican government said Tuesday.
Ten of the 30 people who remain hospitalized after the Jan. 18 disaster are in very serious condition, health department official Hugo Lopez-Gatell Ramirez told a press conference.
The critical patients have burns over up to 90 percent of their bodies as well as internal injuries, he said, adding that the department also wants to test people who live in the accident area for possible effects from having inhaled gasoline fumes.
Inhaling even relatively small amounts can cause irritation in the nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing.
The blast occurred hours after hundreds of residents of the town of Tlahuelilpan gathered near a pipeline to collect fuel after thieves had drilled a hole in the duct.
Army soldiers had arrived at the scene prior to the explosion but were unable to control the large crowd.
Stealing fuel from pipelines owned by state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and re-selling it on the black market has become a major criminal enterprise in Mexico.
This form of theft cost Mexico some $3.4 billion last year, according to official figures.
Since his Dec. 1, 2018, inauguration, leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has launched an all-out fight against the racket, deploying thousands of police and troops to increase the surveillance of pipelines.
The administration also adopted a change in Pemex’s method for shipping gasoline and diesel from refineries to urban distribution centers, opting to transport more fuel via tanker trucks instead of pipelines.
That modification has caused severe supply problems in at least 10 states and Mexico City and led to the closing of service stations and panic purchases.
In parallel with those steps, Lopez Obrador presented last week a plan to provide economic aid to communities along the routes to discourage residents from illegally tapping into the conduits.
The plan is expected to benefit 1.68 million people in 91 municipalities and has an estimated price tag of 3.86 billion pesos ($187 million).
The goal is to alleviate poverty and end the need for people to tap the pipelines to get fuel, the president said.