Fire extinguished at Venezuela refinery



Fire extinguished at Venezuela refinery Punto Fijo (Venezuela): Venezuela's biggest oil refinery remained offline Tuesday after firefighters extinguished a blaze that raged for more than three days following an explosion that killed at least 41 people.

While fuel tanks smoldered at the Amuay refinery, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said officials expect to restart operations at the refinery in two days.

The blast early Saturday was the deadliest disaster ever at a Venezuelan refinery and has thrown open a national debate about safety and maintenance within the country's oil industry.

The debate has also touched the presidential campaign, with President Hugo Chavez's rival calling for a transparent and thorough investigation.

The fire took longer to put out than officials had initially hoped. Ramirez had said Saturday the state oil company would be able to restart the refinery "in a maximum of two days," then later said it would be two days once the fire was out.

"Now of course come all of the subsequent tasks: evaluation, securing the entire area," Ramirez told the Caracas-based television network Telesur on Tuesday morning.

He said firefighters were still working in the area spraying the tanks with foam to cool them down.

"We need to check all the lines, all the connections, all the valves," Ramirez said. He added that the disaster hadn't affected the refinery complex's productive capacity, although operations were halted while the fires burned.

The explosion on Saturday killed at least 41 people and injured more than 150, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega said. Criticisms of the government's response to the gas leak came from the refinery's neighbors as well as oil experts.

Officials have said a gas leak led to the blast, but investigators have yet to determine the precise causes. Officials had said the fire was under control but then announced Monday that a third tank had begun burning.

Chavez declared progress again in fighting the blazes late yesterday, saying in a message on Twitter that one of the three tanks had been extinguished.

Residents said they had no official warning before the explosion hit at about 1 am on Saturday. The blast knocked down walls, shattered windows and left streets littered with rubble.

Today, residents said they were relieved that the fire appeared to be out.

PTI