MEXICO CITY (AP) — A geyser of gasoline spewing from a state-owned pipeline in western Mexico forced officials to evacuate about 4,500 people on Wednesday. Officials blamed the accident on fuel thieves.
Photos from the scene in the town of Tlajomulco, near the city of Guadalajara, showed a plume of gasoline shooting into the air from the pipeline, located in a field near a housing development. Guadalajara is Mexico's second-largest city and the capital of Jalisco state.
The gasoline had not caught fire and there were no immediate reports of injuries. The closest homes were about 150 yards (meters) from the leak. "There's a lot of odor of gasoline in the entire area," said Jalisco state Interior Secretary Arturo Zamora, adding that the evacuation area "is approximately in a radius of 1 kilometer."
On its Twitter account, the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos oil company, known as Pemex, wrote that the leak "was caused by a clandestine tap." Emergency personnel erected a sand-bag barrier around the leak to contain the gasoline and prevent it from contaminating more soil or entering storm drains. In 1992, gasoline leaked into Guadalajara's drains and ignited, effectively creating a bomb 6 miles (10 kilometers) long that demolishing 1,000 homes and killing at least 210 people.
Pemex said it closed the nearest valves to isolate the leak and reduce pressure. Jalisco Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval later wrote in a tweet that the containment barriers had been completed and the leak had been controlled.
Pemex has suffered a huge problem with illegal taps drilled into fuel pipelines. In July, the company said that 1,421 illegal fuel taps were discovered in the first six months of this year, almost twice the 722 taps uncovered in the same period of 2012.
Experts say that, given the skill and timing required to tap into high-pressure pipelines, it is likely that fuel thieves are getting advice and inside information, if not outright help, from people inside the company.
Pemex announced Wednesday that 39 company employees and nine sub-contracted drivers of fuel delivery trucks have been arrested on suspicion of fuel theft in the neighboring state of Guanajuato. In a statement, Pemex said the drivers and Pemex employees were accused of falsifying weight measurements on loaded tanker trucks at a Pemex distribution facility in the city of Salamanca.
Prosecutors also seized 10 tanker trucks.