August 12, 2013 / 12:22 AM / 7 years ago

Fire crews extinguish blaze at Venezuela oil refinery

CARACAS (Reuters) - Firefighters in Venezuela put out a blaze in a storage tank at an oil refinery that was caused by lightning on Sunday and led to the evacuation of people living nearby, a top official at state oil company PDVSA said.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at an oil refinery in Puerto La Cruz August 11, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

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.

No one was hurt in the fire, but residents within a 1 km (0.6 mile) radius were moved away from the scene while fire crews fought the blaze in a downpour at the 187,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) Puerto La Cruz facility in the eastern state of Anzoategui.

“The fire has been completely extinguished,” Asdrubal Chavez, PDVSA’s vice president for refining, told state TV.

He congratulated the fire crews for their “sustained effort which allowed us to control this important fire in record time.”

Separately, PDVSA said operations at its 146,000-bpd El Palito refinery had been stopped on Sunday by a power cut that was also a result of the torrential rains.

President Nicolas Maduro said earlier on Twitter that he was in direct communication with the teams tackling the blaze at Puerto La Cruz. Officials stressed that the evacuation of homes around the refinery was just 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 houses.

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 El Palito refinery. No one was hurt in either case.

Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Diane Craft and Richard Pullin

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