Lightning starts fire at Venezuela refinery: president

CARACAS Sun Aug 11, 2013 5:53pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Lightning set fire to a storage tank at Venezuela's Puerto La Cruz oil refinery on Sunday, the president said, and residents were moved out of the immediate area while local media showed images of thick black smoke rising from the facility.

Thunderstorms this weekend have drenched much of the South American OPEC nation, which has suffered repeated accidents at its oil refineries in recent years. Lightning bolts ignited two storage tanks at a different refinery just last year.

Firefighters were battling the blaze in heavy rain at Puerto La Cruz, in the eastern state of Anzoategui, and residents living within a 1 km (0.6 mile) radius were being moved away from the scene. The information minister said no one was hurt.

"Joint teams from (state oil company) PDVSA, the Anzoategui government and firefighters are working to control the fire," President Nicolas Maduro said on Twitter.

"I'm keeping myself in direct communication with the teams, and I appreciate the cooperation of the local communities."

Asdrubal Chavez, PDVSA's vice president for refining, told state television the blaze at the 187,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) facility was confined, and that efforts to extinguish it in the hours ahead would in part depend on the weather.

"There has been no loss of life nor injuries," said Information Minister Delcy Rodriguez, adding that the evacuation of the area around the refinery was a precaution.

In one of the global oil industry's worst accidents for decades, a gas leak caused an explosion and fire last year at Venezuela's giant 645,000-bpd Amuay oil refinery that killed more than 40 people and wrecked hundreds of nearby homes.

The country became a net gasoline importer last year, largely because the Amuay disaster forced PDVSA to import fuels to meet domestic demand.

Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, nationalized most of the oil industry during his 14 year rule and used export revenue from high prices to fund generous social programs that ranged from subsidized groceries to brand-new apartments.

Critics say PDVSA has been mismanaged as a result and has suffered from under-investment that they blame for a string of accidents and unplanned stoppages at its facilities.

In two very similar incidents less than a month apart last year, lightning set fire to two separate storage tanks at the 146,000-bpd El Palito refinery. No one was hurt in either case.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Diane Craft)

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