Offline refinery endangering Chavez re-election

Venezuela’s biggest oil refinery remained offline today after firefighters extinguished a blaze that raged for more than three days following an explosion that killed at least 41 people.

Venezuela’s biggest oil refinery remained offline today after firefighters extinguished a blaze that raged for more than three days following an explosion that killed at least 41 people.

While fuel tanks smouldered at the Amuay refinery, oil minister Rafael Ramirez said officials expect to restart operations at the refinery in two days.

The blast early on Saturday was the deadliest disaster ever at a Venezuelan refinery and has thrown open a national debate about safety and maintenance within the country’s oil industry.

The debate has also touched the presidential campaign, with President Hugo Chavez’s rival calling for a transparent and thorough investigation.

The fire took longer to put out than officials had initially hoped. Mr Ramirez had said on Saturday the state oil company would be able to restart the refinery “in a maximum of two days”, then later said it would be two days once the fire was out.

“Now of course come all of the subsequent tasks: evaluation, securing the entire area,” Mr Ramirez said. He added firefighters were still working in the area spraying the tanks with foam to cool them down.

“We need to check all the lines, all the connections, all the valves,” Ramirez said. He added that the disaster had not affected the refinery complex’s productive capacity, although operations were halted while the fires burned.

The explosion on Saturday killed at least 41 people and injured more than 150, prosecutor general Luisa Ortega said.

Criticisms of the government’s response to the gas leak came from the refinery’s neighbours as well as oil experts.

Officials have said a gas leak led to the blast, but investigators have yet to determine the precise causes.

Officials had said the fire was under control but then announced yesterday that a third tank had begun burning.

Mr Chavez declared progress again in fighting the blazes late yesterday, saying in a message on Twitter that one of the three tanks had been extinguished.

Residents said they had no official warning before the explosion hit at about 1am local time on Saturday. The blast knocked down walls, shattered windows and left streets littered with rubble.

Today, residents said they were relieved that the fire appeared to be out.

“We feel happy after so many days of anguish and fear,” said Hilda Castellanos, a housewife who said the flames had been diminishing since hours before dawn.

Edgar Medina was working with his father to clear rubble that blocked the way to what remained of their windowless home. “Now what we hope is that they help us rebuild everything,” he said.

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

Officials said at least 20 of those killed were National Guard troops who had been stationed at a post next to the refinery.

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

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said yesterday that 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,” Mr Capriles said.

The refinery is among the world’s largest and is part of the Paraguana Refining Centre, which also includes the adjacent refinery.

Together, the refineries usually process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day and 200,000 barrels of petrol.

More debate about the government response to the explosion is likely during the presidential campaign.

Some Chavez critics and oil industry experts say insufficient maintenance could have made such a disaster likelier. Mr Chavez and other government officials deny that, saying billions of dollars have been spent in recent years on upkeep at refineries including Amuay.

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