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Lack of Maintenance Eyed in Venezuelan Refinery Disaster

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

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As the death toll neared 50 in Venezuela’s horrific Amuay refinery explosion and four-day blaze, initial speculation on the cause focused quickly on maintenance and management neglect.

The four-day blaze has killed almost 50 people. Critics say the state-owned oil company is mismanaged  and involved in too many unrelated projects.

European Pressphoto Agency

The four-day blaze has killed almost 50 people. Critics say the state-owned oil company is mismanaged  and involved in too many unrelated projects.

The explosion occurred at 1:11 a.m. Saturday (Aug. 25) at the country’s largest refinery, igniting fuel tanks and raging out of control until Tuesday (Aug. 28) afternoon, when authorities finally announced that firefighters had been able to extinguish it.

The latest reports put the number of deaths at 48 and injured at more than 150, making the accident one of the deadliest ever for the global oil and gas industry. Many of the dead were members of the country’s National Guard who had been protecting the refining facility.

Venezuela observed a three-day national mourning period for the victims.

The 645,000 barrel-per-day refinery is one of the world’s largest; the nation has some of the world's largest gas and oil reserves.

6 Months, 19 Accidents

The disaster reignited a fierce public debate over safety and maintenance practices by the government-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (Petroleum of Venezuela, or PDSVA).

Analysts and industry professionals have long voiced concerns over the overall deterioration of the company, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

Before Saturday’s blast, the oil producer logged 19 accidents in the first half of 2012, including explosions, oil spills, and operational failures that resulted in the injury of 20 workers, the newspaper reported. A Feb. 4 spill in Monagas state continued for 40 hours before a broken pipeline was sealed, dumping 80,000 barrels of crude oil.

“There are so many accidents, so many spills that never used to happen, the quality of management has to be bad,” Heraldo Sifontes, who managed the Amuay refinery for seven years, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Sifonte noted that refining was an inherently dangerous business, but he added, "[T]he issue is the frequency you have of these types of problems.”

'The Country Has the Right to Know'

The New York Times said the disaster had “unleashed a barrage of criticism at the government’s management of the state-run oil company.”

“Even as President Hugo Chávez has turned the oil company into the financial engine of his socialist revolution, critics say it has neglected essential activities like maintenance, safety and the development of new sources of production,” the Times reported.

Chavez, who is involved in a heated campaign for re-election Oct. 7, defends the government’s oversight of the industry.

On Monday (Aug. 27), his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, disagreed. Capriles call for an in-depth investigation, saying: “If there was negligence, the country has the right to know it.”

Industry Critics

Even professionals in the petrochem industry were quick to voice sharp concerns over the government’s management of the company.

 “I have to conclude that they’re not taking the same safety precautions as they used to,” Fernando Sánchez, vice president of Petroleum Engineers of Venezuela, a professional organization, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Citing PDVSA’s own data, Sanchez said the company’s refineries were now operating at just 65 percent of capacity due to lack of maintenance and investment.

Odor Reported

Neighbors of the refinery reported smelling strong sulfur-type fumes from the refinery between 7 and 8 p.m. the evening before the blast. But “many said they weren’t worried because they had smelled such odors before,” the Associated Press reported.

The blast blew apart many home’s walls and windows and rained rubble into the street. Amateur video shows several blazes at the site.

Response Criticized

The concerns were flamed by the company’s response to the disaster. Officials initially vowed to have the refinery back online two days after the explosion. They then assured the public that the blaze was under control, only to have it spread to a third tank and spark another ball of flames in a crowd of soldiers and bystanders.

Chavez has increasingly tapped into the oil company's income to pay for growing government expenses, especially social programs. Recently, he has also had the oil company build homes and produce food--tasks that critics say have distracted the producer from focusing on maintenance and safety.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Air quality; Health and safety; Maintenance coating work; Maintenance programs; Oil and Gas

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