Venezuela: refinery disaster politicized

A massive gas leak explosion at Venezuela’s sprawling Amuay refinery on Aug. 25 killed 48 people and badly damaged 1,600 homes—the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history, and the worst refinery accident anywhere on Earth in over a decade. The refinery on the Paraguana Peninsula (see map) is South America’s largest and one of the world’s largest, run by the state oil company PDVSA. Hundreds of residents of the poor Alí Primera and La Pastora districts near the facility have been left homeless. As the inferno blazed for four days, prompting an exodus from the stricken districts, gangs of looters descended, breaking into the still-standing homes to carry away refrigerators and TV sets. Opposition critics charge that PDVSA failed to carry out maintenance work or improve safety standards following a string of accidents and unplanned outages at the refinery in recent years.

Last year, three workers were killed in accidents at the facility. According to PDVSA documents, nine shut-downs for maintenance were scheduled in 2011, but only three actually took place. The others were officially postponed till 2012—yet have still not taken place. The opposition press accuses PDVSA of appointing managers on the basis of their loyalty to President Hugo Chávez rather than experience or competency, and has dubbed the Amuay disaster “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” after the famous novel by Gabriel García Márquez.

Critics point to other recent PDVSA mishaps. In 2010, there was a massive fire at a PDVSA fuel terminal on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, followed by a dockside blaze at the Paraguana complex that halted shipping for four days. Also in 2010, a natural gas exploration rig, the Aban Pearl, sank in the Caribbean. All 95 workers were rescued safely.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez said the cause of the Amuay blast is under investigation but that “there is no way” it could have been related to faulty maintenance at the facility. He called local rumors that a gas leak had gone unaddressed for days before the blast an “absolute lie.” Like the opposition, he also pointed to the politicization of the PDVSA—but placed the shoe on the other foot, saying the company “is subject to threats and has been perpetually attacked,” a reference to the 2002 opposition-called strike that crippled operations. “It has been converted into a target for the enemies of our president, the enemies of the country, an objective of war.” (Reuters, EFEAnalí, Venezuela, Sept. 2; Time, Aug. 28; Reuters, Aug. 26)