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Fire under control

CARACAS — Firefighters have managed to extinguish two of three burning storage tanks at Venezuela’s biggest refinery today, officials said, as authorities aim to restart the facility by the end of the week.

President Hugo Chavez broke the news about the first tank in a series of pre-dawn Tweets. Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez later told Reuters by telephone that a blaze in a second tank had also been extinguished.

“We continue battling with our heroic firefighters from (state oil company) PDVSA,” Chavez said. “With God’s help, we will succeed!”

Ramirez said there was now no risk of additional storage tanks catching fire because those nearby were either empty or filled with less flammable fuels.

He told Reuters in an exclusive interview yesterday that the 645,000 barrel-per-day facility could restart operations on Friday, and that all three burning tanks would be extinguished within two days.

An explosion on Saturday at Amuay killed 48 people and pushed up US fuel prices in markets that were already bullish because of a threat that Tropical Storm Isaac could disrupt refinery operations on the US Gulf Coast.

Ramirez said Venezuela currently had no plans to import fuel, and that the rise in US gasoline prices would not last.

The blast has spurred fresh criticism and claims of mismanagement by PDVSA. Traders say the impact on fuel markets may continue even after Amuay is up and running again. Tank farm accidents often cause problems with gasoline blending, which means PDVSA may have to boost imports.

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’s Texas City refinery in which 15 people died.

Chavez said at the scene on Monday that he was creating a fund worth about $23 million to help pay for clean-up operations and replace homes destroyed by the pre-dawn blast.

He said 60 new houses were ready now, 60 more would be finished soon, and a further 137 new homes would be handed over next month. Meanwhile, PDVSA has sent vehicles to move residents and their belongings to safety, as well as food and water. (Reuters)

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