UPDATE 2-Arlene to approach hurricane strength as nears land
* Arlene's path over Tamaulipas, oil refineries
* Storm could approach hurricane strength at landfall
* Warnings of flash floods, landslides from rains (Adds updated storm path, details on ports, Pemex)
MEXICO CITY, June 29 (Reuters) - Arlene, the first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, is likely to approach hurricane strength by the time it makes landfall along Mexico's northeastern coast early on Thursday.
The storm is heading toward oil refineries near the Atlantic coast and in central Mexico but will probably spare major offshore oil fields from a direct hit, according to the forecast from U.S. National Hurricane Center.
"The official intensity forecast ... now shows Arlene approaching hurricane strength at landfall," the Miami-based center said in a statement.
Arlene, moving west, had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and was located about 155 miles (250 km) east of Tampico in Tamaulipas state on Wednesday morning.
A hurricane watch is in place along Mexico's Gulf Coast from the fishing town of Tuxpan northward to La Cruz.
The center's model showed the storm making landfall south of Tampico, where the state oil monopoly Pemex [PEMEX] has its 190,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Madero refinery.
Bigger inland refineries in Salamanca, producing 245,000 bpd, and Tula, with 315,000 bpd capacity, are also in the storm's forecast path. ((For factbox on Mexico's refining capacity and fuel demand, see [ID:nN09229970]))
A Pemex spokesman said the refineries were operating normally and there were no reports of disruptions or evacuations at any of the company's installations. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Mexico is a top oil exporter to the United States and almost all of its exports are shipped to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast from the three Gulf of Mexico ports: Dos Bocas, Cayo Arcas and Coatzacoalcos.
Arlene will hit north of the oil exporting ports, according to the hurricane center's model, and all remained open on Wednesday.
Strong winds and rain are expected to batter the eastern Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and eastern San Luis Potosi and could reach Mexico City by Friday.
"These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," the center said.
Mexico's northeastern Atlantic coast is popular with local tourists for its beaches but many poor coastal towns lack flood defenses.
A spokesman for civil protection in Taumalipas said the region was on "amber alert" and residents had been advised to make sure their homes were properly secured.
The rains, however, could bring some relief to farmers planting sugar cane, sorghum and fruit trees in the area who have been suffering from a prolonged dry spell.
Mexico was hit by Hurricane Beatriz, the second tropical storm of the Pacific season, last week but the weather system did no major damage. [ID:nN1E75K09N]
(Reporting by Elinor Comlay in Mexico City, additional reporting by Naveed Anjum and Koustav Samanta in Bangalore; Editing by Philip Barbara)
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