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Venezuela stamps out refinery blaze, eyes restart

PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan firefighters put out a blaze at the country’s biggest oil refinery on Tuesday, paving the way for a restart of the facility and an investigation into the world’s deadliest refinery accident in fifteen years.

Firefighters work at extinguishing flames from fuel storage tanks at Amuay oil refinery in Punto Fijo, in the Peninsula of Paraguana, August 28, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez has said the 645,000-barrel-per-day Amuay facility should restart within two days of the fire being extinguished. A pre-dawn blast on Saturday killed 48 people, wounded dozens and flattened hundreds of homes.

U.S. gasoline futures tumbled on Tuesday after soaring the day before, driven by the resolution of the Amuay blaze and the smaller-than-expected impact on U.S. Gulf Coast refineries from a tropical storm now upgraded to a hurricane.

None of Amuay’s processing units were hit by the blaze, though refinery operations were shut down on Saturday for safety reasons. State oil company PDVSA says it has sufficient stocks to meet domestic and international market demand.

One fuel storage tank burned intermittently on Tuesday morning, flaring up twice only minutes after authorities had declared it to be entirely extinguished. By mid-day the blaze was out and did not show signs of returning.

It was one of the most deadly oil industry accidents in recent years, nearing the toll of the 1997 fire at India’s Visakhapatnam refinery that killed 56 and topping the 2005 blast at BP Plc’s Texas City refinery in which 15 people died.

More than 50 people were declared dead or missing last year after a drilling rig sank in the icy seas off eastern Russia.

The charred remains of three fuel tanks stood behind piles of rubble scattered by the blast at Amuay.

“As soon as I got up I left the house and said ‘Thank God they managed to put that fire out,’” said Juan Padilla, 76, a former refinery worker who lives in the neighboring Ali Primera area. “I’m going to sleep easy tonight.”

During a visit to the scene on Monday, President Hugo Chavez promised to set up a $23 million fund to help pay for clean-up operations and replace destroyed homes.

The incident has thrown a spotlight on the shoddy performance of Venezuela’s refineries, which for the last decade have suffered frequent accidents and unplanned outages.

PDVSA officials deny allegations by critics that the blast may have been caused by a lack of maintenance. Many of the dead were National Guard troops who were providing security in a compound next to the tanks.

The incident may leave PDVSA reliant on fuel imports even after Amuay is up and running, traders say, because problems at tank farms can often make it difficult for companies to properly blend gasoline with other chemical components.

PDVSA has for years been a recurrent importer of fuel including gasoline due to frequent refinery outages that are usually minor in comparison the Saturday’s explosion but still hamper output of oil products.

Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Andrew Hay