Venezuela refinery tank fires mostly extinguished


CARACAS -- Firefighters were able to mostly put out flames consuming three storage tanks at Venezuela’s largest oil refinery on Tuesday morning as efforts to control one of the country's deadliest industry accidents entered the fourth day.

Officials, including Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, said through various state media outlets that the blaze at the 640,000 bpd Amuay facility was completely extinguished.

Government-run television VTV and state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, or PdVSA, both reported that all three of the affected tanks had been cleared.

But a live video feed broadcast by VTV to display relief efforts at the site showed flames growing again in at least one of the tanks and clouds of black smoke intensifying. The video feed was cut off shortly after.

Volunteer firefighters on the ground said that the fire was under “near-total control” but that the tanks were still smoldering and could flare up.

An early Saturday explosion, believed to have been caused by a gas leak, killed 48 people and severely damaged the houses surrounding the refinery.

Officials had said the blaze was contained to two tanks after the initial blast but on Monday said a third unit had caught fire.

Mr. Ramirez said on state radio Tuesday that Amuay could resume operations in two days.

“The biggest problem we had at the refinery has been resolved,” Mr. Ramirez said. He added that a team of experts will inspect the facility to ensure there wasn't “any kind of leaks or spills.”

Officials haven't given an assessment of damage to the site but have ensured that domestic fuel supplies wouldn't be disrupted.

The incident has raised questions over management of the nationalized oil sector under President Hugo Chavez.

Critics for years have charged the government is making insufficient investments into maintenance as significant portions of oil revenue are siphoned off to finance social programs spearheaded by Mr. Chavez.

Many analysts have raised doubts over whether the government will be able to restart operations at the facility as quickly as officials have indicated and if the plant will return to normal capacity.

While the Amuay refinery has a capacity to process 640,000 bpd of crude, it had been working well below that rate for some time.

Mr. Ramirez said earlier this year that the Paraguana Refining Complex, which includes Amuay, had been working at 79% capacity. Union officials have said the facility was working even well below that level.

Dow Jones Newswires

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