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Venezuela insists refinery fire extinguished

Firefighters douse a fuel tank at the Amuay refinery near Punto Fijo, Venezuela, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. Officials said Tuesday that all fires have been extinguished at Venezuela's biggest oil refinery.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

A raging fire that has halted operations at the Opec country's largest refinery since Saturday has been "totally extinguished," Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's energy minister, said on Tuesday.

Although the flames appeared to revive subsequently, officials insisted that the fires burning in three storage tanks were under control.

The fires started after a gas leak caused a massive explosion at Paraguana, in one of the oil industry's deadliest disasters in recent memory, killing more than 40 people.

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"The greater problem that we had at the refinery has been resolved," said Mr. Ramirez, at the Paraguana refining centre, the second-biggest refinery complex in the world, which includes the Amuay refinery. He said the process of cooling down the area would now begin.

Mr. Ramirez also said that the Amuay refinery on Venezuela's Caribbean coast could resume operations within two days and that the disaster would not affect the domestic distribution of fuel or international supply commitments. He told Reuters that Venezuela had no plans to import fuel and that the incident should not affect gasoline prices.

The tragedy has triggered a wave of criticism from opponents of Hugo Chavez, who is seeking re-election as president on Oct. 7, with critics accusing state oil company PDVSA of negligence, failing to invest in maintenance and incompetent management.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, who is challenging Mr. Chavez in elections due in October, asked for "a profound reflection" after recent disasters in Venezuela that he said had been poorly managed by the government.

"Cumanacoa, Yare, Cupira. We're talking about many situations which can't be attributed to natural events," he said, referring to places, respectively, where flooding has left people homeless, a prison riot left 25 dead and a collapsed bridge put a main interstate motorway out of action in the past two weeks.

Although Mr. Chavez has promised an investigation into the blast at Amuay in which "no hypothesis will be discarded," PDVSA already appears to have ruled out the possibility that the catastrophe was related to a lack of maintenance, pointing out that $6-billion (U.S.) had been spent on maintenance in the past three years. Still, PDVSA's 2011 annual report states that of nine scheduled stops for maintenance at Amuay that year, seven were postponed because of a lack of parts.

Mr. Capriles said that between 2003 and 2011 – after an opposition-backed oil industry strike in 2002-3 resulted in 20,000 PDVSA workers being fired – there have been 303 serious accidents, 77 deaths and 267 injuries.

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"This terrible explosion cannot remain as just one more event that has affected the oil industry," said Mr. Capriles. "There has to be a serious investigation."

The disaster ranks as one of the most serious oil industry accidents in recent history, with fewer fatalities than the 1997 fire at India's Visakhapatnam refinery that killed 56 people, but more than the 2005 blast at BP's Texas City refinery in which 15 people died.

Amuay, together with the adjacent Cardon refinery, has an overall capacity of 955,000 barrels per day and some 200,000 barrels of gasoline. Only India's Jamnagar complex is bigger, which processes 1.24 million bpd.

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