What will Venezuela learn from its Amuay refinery explosion?

After any industrial disaster it's useful to pinpoint what happened so it doesn't happen again. But some see warning signs in the fact that Venezuela's PDVSA already ruled out maintenance problems without an investigation.

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    Fuel storage tanks are seen on fire at Amuay oil refinery in Punto Fijo in the Paraguana peninsula of Venezuela on Monday, August 27.
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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

I rented a sweet-looking road bike from a bike shop in Bogotá Friday afternoon. Saturday morning at first light, a friend and I were riding up the Andean foothills in back of the city. Within a few kilometers, a crucial part – the bottom bracket – had loosened up and started to fall apart. The rest of the day was a series of messy attempts to fix it. I got back to the city and returned the bike. I told the shop worker who had rented me the thing that it was ill-maintained and that they need to do better in the future. He took responsibility, apologized, and gave me a coupon for a free bike rental. I left satisfied that he will take more care with his rental bikes in the future.

I got home to sickening news. There was an explosion at the Amuay refinery in the Paraguana peninsula of Venezuela. 39 people are confirmed dead, at least one of them a child, and there are 80 injured. The blast destroyed a National Guard barracks and damaged more than 200 homes in the nearby community. The hospital said one of its admittees was 12 years old. [...] Sunday night, the fire continued to burn. I hope everyone injured recovers, and I wish well to the families of those killed.

What now? In any industrial disaster it is useful to figure out what happened and keep it from happening again. But that’s not going to happen. PDVSA management promptly ruled out a maintenance problem. I don’t quite understand how one rules out anything within 24 hours of an explosion like that. The BP Texas City refinery fire took two years to reconstruct.

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Accidents are almost always the result of a combination of factors. One that we already know about, in this case, is that the fire equipment was anything but state of the art. Last week I toured an Ecopetrol facility where fixed foam-launching cannons can reach any corner of the plant. We already know from PDVSA that they didn’t have a system like that.

Right now, PDVSA’s communications office isn’t blaming anyone. But right after the explosion, there were hints of the usual paranoia and blame game. On Saturday, this is the sort of stuff they retweeted. Translated: “The whole PDVSA family in solidarity and ready to help our brothers in Amuay. Knee on the ground. Alert for whatever comes from Maracaibo.”

“Knee on the ground” is an expression that means “armed and ready to defend.” As in, kneeling position with a rifle. One of the responses to this tweet is blunter, calling the explosion an “attack.”

Thousands of people with expertise in the field have seen crucial parts of PDVSA refineries, pumps, mixing plants, pipelines, and other oily, flammable facilities crumbling just as I saw my bottom bracket fall apart on Saturday. They have reported the problems to the appropriate authorities. But unlike a Bogotá bike shop, PDVSA has managed to make a system in which no one takes responsibility and nothing is fixed, even after people are injured or killed.

I don’t think PDVSA will learn anything from this explosion – just as the company failed to learn anything from its past errors. The company already has an impressive string of fires, explosions, pipeline leaks and other disasters this year. But at no time does it ever take responsibility. My bike shop salesman intuitively got that a failure that endangers critical functions, health or safety is important. But the professional engineers running PDVSA don’t get that at all. Until people take responsibility for failure – either voluntarily or by being forced to – you don’t see change. Going back to BP, an independent regulator showed how everyone [messed] up and now ensures systems are in place to prevent a repeat. In the case of Amuay, we won’t see such a thing. We’ll see a lot of fingers pointing at the empire, the nefarious opposition, you name it.

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Venezuelan officials are far from alone in avoiding responsibility. But under the justification of “revolution,” that government has gone unusually far in eliminating the balance of institutional powers that normally forces people to take some responsibility for their errors. Workers’ paradise.

– Steven Bodzin is the Santiago, Chile correspondent for the Monitor. He also blogs at Setty's Notebook.

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