Refinery fire spreads to third tank

Refinery fire spreads to third tank

An intense fire at a Venezuelan refinery spread to a third fuel tank nearly three days after an explosion killed at least 41 people and injured more than 150.

Oil minister Rafael Ramirez said the third tank ignited at the Amuay refinery, which has been in flames since Saturday’s blast.

Government officials had previously said they had the blaze contained, and the spread to another tank was an apparent setback to their plans to quickly restart the refinery.

While a thick column of smoke blew in the wind, Mr Ramirez told reporters the fire was still contained.

“There is no risk of a bigger event,” he said, without specifying how much longer it might burn.

Officials have said a gas leak led to the blast, but investigators have yet to determine the precise causes. Prosecutor general Luisa Ortega said 151 people were injured, 33 of whom remained in hospital.

A nine-year-old girl was missing in the area, health minister Eugenia Sader said on television.

Criticisms of the government’s response to the gas leak emerged from residents as well as oil experts.

People in neighbourhoods next to the refinery said they had no official warning before the explosion hit at about 1am on Saturday.

“What bothers us is that there was no sign of an alarm. I would have liked for an alarm to have gone off or something,” said Luis Suarez, a bank employee. “Many of us woke up thinking it was an earthquake.”

The blast demolished walls, shattered windows and left streets littered with rubble.

People who live next to the refinery said they smelled strong fumes between 7pm and 8pm on Friday, hours before the blast. Then, a cloud of gas ignited in an area with fuel storage tanks and exploded.

President Hugo Chavez visited the refinery on Sunday. In a televised conversation with the president, one state oil company official said workers had made their rounds after 9pm and had not noticed anything unusual.

The official said that at about midnight officials detected the gas leak and “went out to the street to block traffic”.

“And later something happened that set (it) off,” Mr Chavez said. “A spark somewhere.”

Mr Chavez visited some of the injured in a hospital yesterday and said more than 500 homes were damaged.

The disaster occurred little more than a month before Venezuela’s upcoming October 7 presidential election.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said the tragedy should not be politicised, but he also strongly criticised a remark by Mr Chavez, who had said “the show should continue, with our pain, with our sorrow, with our victims”.

“It seems irresponsible, insensitive… to say ’the show should continue’,” Mr Capriles told reporters in Caracas. He repeated past criticisms about the number of accidents at the state-owned oil company, and called for “a serious, responsible and transparent investigation”.

“The state has to give answers. Venezuelans have a right to know what happened in Amuay,” he said.

Energy analyst Jorge Pinon said the accounts of the hours leading up the explosion raised concerns.

“The fact that the gas leak went undetected for a number of hours and that there was no evacuation alarm (or) order indicates to me that there is a lack of safety related planning and behaviours throughout the complex, and most important in nearby communities,” he said.

“The key to refinery safety is not only equipment and maintenance but processes and behaviours, not only within company employees but also contractors and surrounding communities.”

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