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Fire at Venezuela oil refinery spreads

29 august 2012, 11:47
A devastating fire at Venezuela's main oil refinery, which has already left 48 people dead, spread Monday to a third fuel storage tank, complicating the difficult task facing firefighters, AFP reports.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared three days of national mourning and promised an investigation into Saturday's explosion at the Amuay refinery after a suspected gas leak, which sparked the massive blaze.

The governor of northwestern Falcon state, Stella Lugo, told local radio the toll has risen from 41 to 48 dead.

"We must announce that a third tank... is on fire," said Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, who is also the head of state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which operates the refinery on the Paraguana peninsula.

Ramirez insisted that firefighters were working to "control and confine" the blaze, which had previously been confined to two of nine storage tanks at the facility in Venezuela, South America's biggest oil producer.

Earlier, Ramirez had said that the fire would be contained "in the coming hours." He later noted that swirling winds were making the task more difficult.

On Monday, the flames and a massive plume of smoke were still visible several kilometers (miles) away from the refinery. More than 220 firefighters were still at the scene, trying to douse the flames, the government said.

The accident is the worst ever for PDVSA. About half of the dead were members of the National Guard tasked with surveillance at the site, according to Lugo.

Chavez, who is vying for re-election on October 7, slammed reports that poor maintenance was responsible for the accident at the state-owned refinery, one of the biggest in the world, as he paid a visit there Sunday.

"Some philosopher said -- I don't know who -- that 'life must go on,'" said Chavez, describing as "irresponsible" experts who have suggested that the government had inadequate safeguards in place at the site.

He also said that those who had perished in the tragedy would not be forgotten. On Monday, he visited the wounded at a hospital in Falcon state.

The country's prosecutor general, Luisa Ortega, said a total of 151 people had been injured, 33 of whom remained in hospital. Ortega differed with Lugo on the death toll, putting it at about 40.

The refinery is located in a residential and commercial complex where workers live with their relatives and poor families who settled in surrounding neighborhoods. Authorities said 209 homes and 11 businesses had been affected.

Some residents just outside the perimeter cordoned off by security forces gathered belongings and prepared to leave their damaged homes, while others said they would remain on site.

"I am not afraid at all," said Ali Bello, 60, as he sat in front of his home whose roof was now awkwardly sloping downward. "They are saying it won't explode again."

Ramirez predicted that production at the refinery would resume two days after the fire had been brought under control.

But Jose Bodas, general secretary of the United Federation of Oil Industry Workers, questioned these plans.

"It appears to us that it is too early to talk about resuming production without knowing the exact cause of the explosion," Bodas told AFP.

Before the blast, the Amuay refinery was able to process about 645,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

Oil analyst Diego Gonzalez told AFP it was still too early to predict the cost of rebuilding the refinery and nearby residential areas.

Venezuelan media have often reported complaints about safety and maintenance standards at the country's refineries, but authorities insist there were no maintenance issues at Amuay.

Henrique Capriles, Chavez's rival for the presidency, on Monday called on the government to thoroughly investigate the incident and identify those responsible.

The Latin American nation produces about three million barrels of oil per day, according to state figures, while the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries puts the number at 2.3 million barrels per day.

OPEC certified in 2011 that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world at 296.5 billion barrels, surpassing Saudi Arabia, the country with the biggest refining capacity.

In March, Venezuela said the reserves were even higher at 297.57 billion.

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