PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan firefighters struggled to finish putting out a blaze at the country’s biggest refinery on Tuesday, with a fuel tank twice bursting into flames within minutes of authorities declaring it fully extinguished.
The partly-melted storage tank burned on and off at the 645,000-barrel-per-day Amuay refinery as teams poured foam over it to suffocate a fire sparked by a pre-dawn blast on Saturday that killed 48 people.
The blaze had been put out at around 10:30 a.m. (1500 GMT). Though it was not immediately clear if it might break out again, the fire seemed to be largely under control.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez has said the facility should restart within two days of the fire being put out. None of the processing units were hit by the blaze, though refinery operations were shut down on Saturday for safety reasons.
Ramirez has repeatedly assured that Venezuela has sufficient fuel inventories to supply the domestic market and continue meeting export commitments.
U.S. gasoline futures dropped sharply on Tuesday, a day after rising as much as 3 percent on the combination of the Amuay fire and Tropical Storm Isaac’s potential threat to U.S. to Gulf Coast refinery operations.
The blast flattened hundreds of homes and left dozens wounded. Many of the dead were National Guard troops who were providing security in a compound next to the tanks.
The charred remains of two other fuel tanks, which had been extinguished before dawn, were almost entirely melted from three days of the blazing inferno.
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 may leave PDVSA relying on imports.
Venezuela has for years had to import fuel due to recurrent refineries outages.
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.
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 Plc’s (BP.L) Texas City refinery in which 15 people died.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Sofina Mirza-Reid)