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Venezuelan refinery explosion kills 48

28 August 2012

An explosion at the Amuay refinery, the largest in Venezuela, killed 48 people on August 25. The resulting fire spread to a third storage tank two days later, confirming the incident as the country's worst oil industry accident. The explosion occurred after a gas cloud formed and erupted into a ball of flames that engulfed a National Guard post as well as homes and shops in front of the refining complex. 

The National Guard stationed at the refinery bore the brunt of the deaths, including 18 troops and 15 family members, according to Vice President Elias Jaua. More than 500 homes in the vicinity of the plant were damaged.

The blast at the 645,000 barrel-per-day facility has spurred criticism and claims of mismanagement by state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). Its frequent refinery incidents have rarely drawn sanctions from the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez because his allies closely control regulatory agencies and the justice system.

Chavez has promised a full investigation and a 50-strong team of officials has been appointed to get to the bottom of the accident. He has rejected claims that the gas leak began days before the blast, and PDVSA officials have denied that a lack of maintenance played any part in the incident.

Ivan Freites, a union leader at Amuay, accused PDVSA's management of playing down the scale of the disaster. His union has been calling on the company for years to improve safety standards across its installations.

According to Reuters, the accident has added a sour note to President Hugo Chavez's re-election campaign, pulling him away from his usual schedule of exuberant rallies and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

"There must be a serious and transparent investigation, out of respect for those who lost their lives," said his election rival, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. "The state must assume its responsibility and give answers."

Chavez said that he was creating a fund worth about $23 million that would help pay for clean-up operations and replace homes wrecked by the pre-dawn blast. He said 60 new homes were ready for affected families to move into, 60 more would be finished soon, and a further 137 houses would be handed over next month.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said two of the fires at tanks holding naphtha at the refinery would be extinguished later on and he hoped production would start again by August 30.

Ramirez, who is also head of state oil company PVDSA, said Venezuela has 4 million barrels of inventories of gasoline and other petroleum products and continues to produce 735,000 barrels of gasoline a day at other refineries.

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