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Venezuela's refinery explosion its worst ever

Venezuela's biggest refinery was rocked by an explosion that claimed 39 lives. Venezuela says the fire is under control and that it won't halt exports.

By Sailu Urribarri and Marianna ParragaReuters / August 25, 2012

Fire and smoke rise over the Amuay refinery near Punto Fijo, Venezuela, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012. A huge explosion rocked Venezuela's biggest oil refinery, killing 39 people and injuring dozens. Authorities blame a gas leak.

Ariana Cubillos/AP



An explosion tore through Venezuela's biggest refinery on Saturday, killing 39 people, wounding dozens more and halting operations at the facility in the worst accident to hit the OPEC nation's oil industry.

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Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told Reuters no production units at the Amuay refinery were affected and that there were no plans to halt exports, a sign that the incident will likely have little impact on fuel prices.

Photographs taken shortly after the pre-dawn blast showed wrecked vehicles, flattened fences and giant storage tanks buckling and crumpling as flames lit the night sky. A National Guard building in the area was shattered and officials said a 10-year-old child was among the dead.

A gas leak caused the explosion and many of those killed were National Guard troops who were providing security for the 645,000 barrel-per-day facility, Ramirez said, adding that the fire was under control.

Officials said 18 of the soldiers were confirmed dead along with 15 civilians, while six bodies still had to be identified.

"There was a National Guard barracks near the explosion. ... The installation was too close to the operations," Ramirez told Reuters in an exclusive telephone interview, adding that production could resume at Amuay within two days at most.

"We need to boost production at other refineries and look for floating storage near the complex," he said.

The explosion follows repeated accidents and outages during the last decade across installations run by state oil company PDVSA that have limited output and crimped expansion plans.

Amuay has partially shut operations at least twice this year due to a small fire and the failure of a cooling unit.

Those problems have spurred accusations of inept management by the government of President Hugo Chavez, who is running for re-election on Oct. 7. Acrimony over the explosion could spill into an already bitter campaign, but is unlikely to overtake larger political concerns such as crime and the economy.

"I want to convey the deepest pain that I've felt in my heart and soul since I started to get information about this tragedy," Chavez said in a phone call to state TV. He declared three days of mourning.


Venezuela has traditionally been a big supplier of fuel to the United States and the Caribbean, but refinery shutdowns have become so common that they rarely affect market prices.

Traders told Reuters the docks at the refinery were shut, and tankers were anchored offshore waiting. They said this would cause delays to some of the country's exports.

The explosion broke windows at homes in the area, a peninsula in the Caribbean sea in western Venezuela, as well as at Amuay's main administrative building.

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