Oil refinery to reopen after blast that killed 41

Mon, Aug 27, 2012, 01:00

PARAGUANA – Venezuela’s biggest refinery is on track to restart within two days, the energy minister said yesterday, following an explosion on Saturday that killed 41 people in one of the global oil industry’s deadliest accidents.

Energy minister Rafael Ramirez said the fire resulting from the blast was contained in two storage tanks, reiterating that no production units had been affected by Saturday’s pre-dawn disaster at the Amuay refinery, which sits on a peninsula in the Caribbean in western Venezuela.

Yesterday, the skeletal remains of a National Guard barracks destroyed in the blast sagged amid broken concrete and rubble, to a backdrop of flames and huge plumes of smoke coming from the two burning tanks.

The explosion, caused by a gas leak, flattened homes in the immediate vicinity, some of which were located just across the street from the refinery’s fence. Puddles of petroleum mixed with water littered nearby roads.

The victims included 18 National Guard troops and 15 civilians; six remain unidentified. On Sunday, two of the dozens of people wounded died in the hospital, a National Guard general said.

“The roof flew off the house, the fence was pulled up, the windows came out and broke on top of the kids’ beds. It was horrible,” said Ramon Diaz (32), who lives in the nearby slum of Ali Primera. “We are still scared. We look at those flames and we’re still scared.”

The incident is likely to have little impact on world fuel prices because Venezuela can use its existing fuel stocks to supply the South American country’s domestic market as well as maintain exports.

Witnesses said firefighters yesterday did not appear to be trying to extinguish the blaze with foam as they had been on Saturday, suggesting that the authorities may have decided to let the remaining fuel in the tanks burn itself out.

Fire at one of the tanks that had been extinguished on Saturday broke out again overnight.

The disaster follows a decade of repeated outages and accidents at installations run by state oil company PDVSA that have prompted allegations of mismanagement by President Hugo Chávez’s government.

“I want to honour these beloved brothers in arms of the National Guard who lost their lives fulfilling their duties,” Mr Chávez said. “With a tear in our hearts and our souls, we must bid farewell to so many comrades.”

The blast ranks as one of the deadliest refinery accidents in the recent history of the global oil industry, approaching the toll of the 1997 fire at Hindustan Petroleum’s Visakhapatnam refinery in India that killed 56, and topping the 2005 BP Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 workers.

Amuay had already partially shut operations at least twice this year due to a small fire and the failure of a cooling unit.

The high death toll was in part due to the location of the National Guard post, which was not moved when the refinery shifted the site of the storage tank area so that it was next to where troops were stationed. Mr Ramirez acknowledged that the facility was too close to the refinery.

Many of Venezuela’s oil installations have slum residences next to them, and in some cases are located in the middle of cities. In some places, families hang clothes out to dry on fences that surround small oil derricks. – (Reuters)