Explosion kills 26 at Venezuela’s biggest refinery

An explosion tore through Venezuela’s biggest oil refinery on Saturday, killing at least 26 people, wounding more than 50 and halting the facility’s operations in the OPEC nation’s worst industrial accident in recent memory.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Sun 26 Aug 2012, 1:05 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:57 AM

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told Reuters that none of the production units at the Amuay refinery were affected and that there were no plans to halt exports, a sign the incident will likely have little impact on fuel markets.

State TV showed footage of flames and billowing clouds of smoke coming from storage tanks at the 645,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) facility. The blast, triggered by a gas leak at 1:15 a.m. (0645 GMT), damaged nearby homes and officials said a 10-year-old child was among the dead.

Most of those killed were national guard troops that were providing security for the refinery, Ramirez said, adding that fire was under control.

“There was a National Guard barracks near the explosion ... the installation was too close to the operations,” Ramirez told Reuters in an exclusive telephone interview.

“We need to boost production at other refineries and look for floating storage near the complex.”

He said operations could resume at Amuay within two days at most. The incident follows repeated accidents and outages across installations run by state oil company PDVSA during the last decade that have limited output and crimped expansion plans.

Those problems have spurred accusations of inept management by the government of President Hugo Chavez.

It is not immediately clear what the political impact will be for Chavez, who is running for reelection on Oct. 7.

Though opposition leaders accuse him of using PDVSA as a cash cow at the expense of much-needed investment, they do not want to appear to be celebrating the disaster.

“I want to convey the deepest pain that I’ve felt in my heart and soul since I started to get information about this tragedy,” Chavez said in call to state television. He declared three days of mourning.

Fire under control

Windows were broken at homes in the area, a peninsula in the Caribbean sea in western Venezuela, as well as at Amuay’s main administrative building.

Ramirez said the fire that broke out after the explosion was under control and had only affected nine storage tanks holding mostly crude oil and some processed fuels including naphtha.

He said existing fuel stocks around the country were sufficient to guarantee 10 days of exports and local consumption. PDVSA has no plans to invoke force majeure, which lets oil companies stop shipments due to accidents or extreme weather, he said.

Amuay, together with a neighboring facility, forms part of the Paraguana Refining Center, the second-biggest refinery complex in the world with an overall capacity of 955,000 bpd.

Ramirez said that PDVSA crews working through the night managed to get the blaze under control, but that one tank holding naphtha was still on fire.

Health Minister Eugenia Sader traveled to a local hospital to visit some of the injured, and Falcon state governor Stella Lugo said the authorities were sparing no expense.

“We are deploying our whole fire service team, all our health team, the whole contingency plan on the orders of Comandante Chavez to treat the people affected by this emergency,” Lugo told state TV.

In 2010, there was a massive fire at a PDVSA fuel terminal on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, then a blaze at a dock at the Paraguana complex that halted shipping for four days.

Also in 2010, a natural gas exploration rig, the Aban Pearl, sank in the Caribbean. All 95 workers were rescued safely.

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