Fires raged at Venezuela's Amuay refinery after a predawn explosion rocked the facility on August 25 and left at least 42 dead, dozens wounded, and hundreds of homes demolished. The blast was the world's deadliest refinery accident in 15 years.
The catastrophe's exact causes haven't been determined, but Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez, president of the state's oil company Petróoleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), said on Venezuelan television that a gas leak had appeared in a fuel storage tank area and formed a cloud that burst into a ball of flame despite the efforts of workers. "All this happened very fast, and the explosion occurred almost immediately," Ramírez said.
"I don't think there is enough information about this incident at this point, but obviously I think all of the oil industry and the government agencies that have some responsibility for refinery safety are going to be very interested in finding out what happened and what lessons can be learned," said Don Holmstrom of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, (CSB) the independent federal agency responsible for investigating all U.S. industrial chemical accidents.
Photograph from Nuevo Dia/European Pressphoto Agency
A Persistent Problem
The blaze at Venezuela's Amuay refinery, shown here behind onlookers on the Paraguaná Peninsula (map), was sparked by a deadly explosion early on Saturday, August 25, and burned for four days before being extinguished on Tuesday, August 28.
The tragedy is the deadliest refinery accident since a 1997 fire at a Hindustan Petroleum Corporation facility killed 56 people in Visakhapatnam, India. A 2005 disaster at BP's refinery in Texas City, Texas, caused the deaths of 15 workers.
Holmstrom led CSB's investigation at Texas City and at other refinery accident sites—a task that came all too frequently. "We've found from our investigations that there seems to be a significant problem with refinery safety and recurring fires and explosions at facilities," he said.
The 150 or so oil refineries in the United States represent only about one percent of all the facilities governed by EPA and OSHA guidelines to reduce potential for major industrial chemical accidents, Holmstrom explained. "Yet we find that, historically, as much as 30 or 40 percent of our open investigation caseload relates to oil refining. That's obviously a very big concern."
Photograph from Yunior/European Pressphoto Agency
Lives, Homes Lost
Hundreds of homes and other buildings were destroyed by the force of the blast at the Amuay refinery. Amuay, which opened in 1950, is one of three state-owned refineries that together comprise the Paraguaná refinery complex, a 950,000 barrel-per-day facility that's one of the world's largest.
Three storage tanks burned in the fire, though PDVSA officials have reported that the plant's processing infrastructure appears largely unscathed. It's unclear when the refinery, which sends some of its petroleum to the United States, will resume normal operations. Paraguaná facility manager Jesús Luongo said Tuesday on state television that production could restart within two or three days.
Venezuela has surpassed Saudi Arabia as holder of the world's largest proven oil reserves, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy. But critics of the state oil company have for years accused the government of skimping on safety and other infrastructure spending. Such claims become louder in the wake of the disaster, but are hotly denied by President Hugo Chávez and his government. The issue now appears likely to be a political trouble spot for Chávez, who is up for reelection in October.
Photograph by Gil Montano, Reuters
Heart-Wrenching Human Toll
A distraught Helys Vaca searched the Hospital Carlos Sierra in Punto Fijo for her 15-year-old sister Jackeline, listed among the missing after the deadly Amuay refinery explosion. Vaca's mother and 10 year-old brother were confirmed killed in the devastating accident. Many of the dead were National Guard troops and their families, personnel who lived adjacent to the state-owned facility and provided security for the national oil concern PDVSA.
CSB's Don Holmstrom and colleagues are working to help prevent the recurrence of such tragedies.
"I think it's the predominant philosophy in government and in industry that it's not acceptable to have any accidents and that these accidents are preventable. All of the incidents we've investigated, in oil refineries and elsewhere, we've looked at those catastrophic accidents as things that can and should be prevented."
Photograph by Marife Cuauro, Reuters
Many Potential Points of Failure
Authorities initially said the fire was under control Monday after two fuel storage tanks had caught fire, but a third erupted in flames and prolonged the effort to extinguish the blaze. Flames from the tanks are seen in this image from Monday.
Holmstrom of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said that while he knows no specifics of the Amuay accident, his investigators have determined that these events almost always have multiple causes.
"There's an initiating event: a leak occurs, or a tower is overfilled, or a pipe fails, and the result is a release of hazardous chemicals and a fire," he explained. "But these initiating events are not the root causes, those are safety system failures. (BP America's) Texas City is an example that involved operator actions and procedures that weren't followed at all levels of the corporation, including not just workers, but managers with a history of cost-cutting. Workers were afraid to report problems when previous incidents had occurred. There were multiple things that went wrong, and because there are usually multiple causes, these catastrophic events are typically rare—but they carry very high consequences."
The CSB is currently investigating a blaze that broke out on August 6 at Chevron's Richmond, California, refinery when a leak at the facility's crude unit created a flammable vapor cloud. The resulting fumes sent thousands of area residents to hospitals, and CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso called the fire "a near-disaster for refinery personnel ... the overall impact of the incident ranks it as among the most serious U.S. refinery incidents in recent years."
Photograph by Marife Cuauro, Reuters
Lessons Not Yet Learned
Firefighters hosed down oil storage tanks at Venezuela's Amuay oil refinery Tuesday, working in a landscape choked with debris from the deadly August 25 blast. Refineries treat raw crude by superheating it to 660˚F (350˚C) and pumping the vaporized oil into tall towers where, as it cools, it condenses into distinct liquids that can then be chemically constructed into specific petroleum products such as gasoline. In the U.S., the CSB's Holmstrom warned, that process isn't nearly as safe as it should be to prevent potentially deadly accidents-despite the clear lessons of the past.
"The Chemical Safety Board certainly hoped that in the wake of Texas City, where there were 15 people killed and two major reports produced on how to improve refinery safety, that there would have been significant changes after that major catastrophe. Unfortunately the types of improvements that I think a number of people hoped would have occurred out of that incident have not occurred. Changes have not been sufficient to arrest the unfortunate number of refinery fires, explosions, and releases that have occurred, and this is a very big concern for all the government agencies that are overseeing refinery safety," Holmstrom said.
On Wednesday, workers were spraying tank walls at the Amuay refinery with foam as part of the cooling process for the facility, said plant manager Luongo told Venezuelan media. As PDVSA scrambles to restart the refinery, scrutiny of the organization's practices will continue, as will attempts to prevent similar accidents around the world. The effects of the Amuay blast and its disruption of fuel production are unlikely to reach Venezuelans' wallets, however, via price hikes at the pump. Thanks to massive fuel subsidies, gasoline in that country is consistently the cheapest in the world.