Lightning strike sparks brief fire at Venezuela’s Puerto La Cruz refinery

By KEJAL VYAS

CARACAS -- Heavy storms affected two of Venezuela's key oil refineries as one facility was struck by lightning resulting in a fire while another was hit by a power outage, officials from Petroleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), said.

"We are experiencing some quite strong atmospheric conditions in all of the northern coastal part of the country, Asdrubal Chavez, PdVSA's VP of refining, said."

A large fire broke out at the country's 187,000 bpd Puerto la Cruz refinery after a lightning strike in the afternoon. The flames were completely extinguished by night, Mr. Chavez confirmed, adding that there were no injuries and that the refinery continued to operate normally.

Local media earlier showed tall flames and a towering cloud of black smoke coming from the key oil facility, which lies in the coastal city of Puerto la Cruz, about 160 miles east of Caracas.

Residents living around the refinery who were evacuated were starting to return to their houses, Mr. Chavez said.

Meanwhile, 230 miles west, the 140,000 bpd El Palito refinery was paralyzed after heavy rains caused a power outage in the region, a PdVSA spokesman said.

He said that workers had already begun restarting the facility and that it was expected to be fully operational soon.

The incidents are the latest to hit Venezuela's oil industry, which in recent years has been marred by frequent mishaps at its production and refining plants.

One year ago, more than 40 people were killed by a gas leak explosion at the Amuay refinery in the country's deadliest accident yet. Critics of the government blamed the explosion on lack of maintenance, charges that PdVSA officials firmly denied.

In his comments, Mr. Chavez assured that the company continues to conduct maintenance and preventative measures but noted that "sometimes these situations are uncontrollable."

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