Gas Leak Cause of Refinery Blast; 41 Dead

Sunday, August 26, 2012 @ 10:08 AM gHale

A gas leak caused a major explosion at Venezuela’s Amuay refinery killing 41 people early Saturday. More than 80 people ended up in hospitals after the blast at the 640,000 barrel-a-day refinery, officials said.

“This is the biggest disaster in recent memory,” said Eddie Ramirez, national coordinator of Gente de Petroleo, an industry advocacy group that has been critical of the government’s management of PdVSA. “The unfortunate event could have been a lot worse had it happened during the day” as more workers would have been present, Ramirez said.

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The explosion, which one union official said may have started in the propane and butane gas unit of the refinery, forced the shutdown of Amuay. Officials said they plan to open the facility in two days.

“There was a big explosion at 1:05 a.m. [local time] that people thought was a tremor, an earthquake,” said Stella Lugo, the local state governor. She called on residents to remain calm, adding that the situation was under control and “we have evacuated all the areas that need to be evacuated.”

Officials said there was no immediate threat of another explosion at the site and that a fire that resulted from the initial blast had been contained.

In recent years, Amuay, along with other major refineries in Venezuela, have experienced chronic mishaps and operational delays, which, some analysts say, will weigh on the government’s ambitious plans to sharply increase oil output in coming years.

The oil minister said he ordered an investigation into the explosion. He said nine crude-oil-storage tanks had been destroyed in the incident but added that domestic fuel supplies wouldn’t be disrupted.

Amuay is part of Venezuela’s Paraguana Refining Complex, located in the northwestern state of Falcon, around 330 miles from Caracas. PdVSA said in April it had concluded maintenance efforts at Amuay’s catalytic cracker unit, which could allow for “reliable operations for the next four years.”

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