Caracas, 27 August (Argus) — Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramirez said this morning that hundreds of firefighters are still battling to extinguish several fires at state-owned oil firm PdV's 640,000 b/d Amuay refinery's storage tank farm following a deadly blast over the weekend.
Two large fuel storage tanks containing catalytic naphtha and gasoline were still ablaze at 10:30 am local time today, some 53 hours after a massive gas explosion at 1:11 am local time on Saturday that killed at least 44 people and injured at least 80 others.
PdV's firefighting teams, supported by hundreds of firefighters sent to Amuay from five surrounding states, expect to put out the remaining fires completely before sundown today, Ramirez said.
The minister, who is also president of PdV, is now saying the refinery will resume operations two days after the fires are extinguished. But some analysts are saying it could take weeks for the crippled complex to restart.
The energy minister also revealed early today that PdV has “activated salt water containment rings to prevent the fires from spreading and to cool the refinery's crude processing units.”
PdV workers and firefighters are operating dozens of water hoses that are spraying tens of thousands of gallons of salt water at storage tanks and crude processing units near the site of the explosion, an Futpv oil union official inside Amuay refinery confirmed to Argus by telephone.
PdV still does not know what caused the explosion. Ramirez said yesterday that a propane gas leak caused the blast. But today he blamed an olefins leak.
Ramirez also said the gas explosion happened because “normal accumulations of gas common in all refinery operations were not dispersed as they usually are by the wind.”
Many residents living near the refinery claim to have smelled gas for three days prior to the blast.
Ramirez staunchly denied that years of insufficient maintenance spending by PdV were responsible for the worst refinery accident in Venezuela's history.
He said that PdV has made over $4.3bn of capital expenditures since 2008 in the Amuay refinery and the nearby 310,000 b/d Cardon refinery, which together comprise the 950,000 b/d CRP Paraguana refining complex located on Falcon state's Paraguana peninsula.
Ramirez also rejected Futpv union charges that the CRP's managers were negligent and more focused on campaigning for the re-election of President Hugo Chavez on 7 October than on operating the Amuay refinery safely.
“PdV's best human talent in refining is right here at Amuay and Cardon,” Ramirez said, dismissing the Futpv critics as “buzzards.”
Ramirez said PdV would ramp up production at other Venezuelan refineries to compensate for the Amuay shutdown. But union officials say the other refineries have little or no room to bump up utilization.
The extent of any structural damages at the Amuay refinery remains unclear today.
Ramirez said yesterday that at least two propane tanks are thought to be completely destroyed, and between seven and nine other fuel storage tanks sustained structural damage.
But the two storage tanks still on fire today are probably a total loss, the Futpv official told Argus.
Futpv safety officials also are demanding a thorough inspection of all of the Amuay refinery's crude processing units before the refinery resumes operations.
“The blast wave from the explosion extended over 1.5 miles in all directions,” the Futpv official said. “PdV must be absolutely certain that none of the crude processing units suffered structural damage before the units are restarted.”
But Ramirez said yesterday that all of the Amuay refinery's crude processing units are “completely intact and will be fully operation again within two days after the situation is declared safe.”
Ramirez today did not address the Futpv's demands for a safety inspection of the Amuay refinery's crude processing plants.
But he said that PdV has launched a joint investigation with the Sebin national intelligence service to determine the causes of the explosion and fire. The attorney general's office also is involved in the investigation, which suggests that the Chavez government is exploring the hypothesis that the explosion was an act of sabotage.
The Futpv official at Amuay refinery said today that CRP general manager Jesus Luongo “already is arguing within PdV that this was sabotage, but Luongo knows that this was caused by the chronic indifference of PdV's management to basic maintenance needs.”
The Amuay refinery is tightly secured by several rings of National Guard troops and civilian militia that patrol inside and outside the refinery, which is also surrounded by several large security fences equipped with cameras. Last June the defense ministry also deployed multiple batteries of mobile surface-to-air missile defense systems near the CRP.
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