Venezuelans Still Await Answers on Amuay Tragedy

The lack of any official reports continues to haunt Venezuela, more than a year after the deadly explosion and fire at the Amuay Refinery in the northeastern state of Falcón.

María Corina Machado, a National Assembly (AN) lawmaker with the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), told the PanAmerican Post that the government has yet to account for the August 25, 2012, tragic blast that left 42 dead, 5 missing, and more than 150 seriously injured.

María Corina Machado

Machado said that in September 2012 the MUD asked the AN to set up a commission to investigate the Amuay accident. Venezuelans deserve answers and the pro-government majority “flatly refused.”

“We [MUD] began working non-stop right then” on our own inquiry, she said in a telephone interview Monday.

Machado, together with nine fellow opposition AN deputies — including Gregorio Graterol and Eliezert Sirit of Falcón — established the “Truth Over Amuay” commission. Their report, released August 14, 2013, analyzed causes, impacts, and risks in the wake of the worst refinery disaster in the history of Venezuela.

The report said the ignition of a flammable gas cloud “created by an uncontrolled escape of olefins” caused the accident. The leak was “most probably due to the collapse of the mechanical seal on one or more of the P-200 A/B/C pumps located at the base of the TK-208 and TK-209 spheres.” This phenomena is known as an  Unconfined Vapor Cloud Explosion (UVCP).

The commission estimated damages at over US$1.8 billion. Data, the report said, showed “none of the alarms” had been activated and nor “was there knowledge” whether actions were taken to evacuate the surrounding areas. The report affirmed inadequate contingency management by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and emergency services during the detection of the gas leak before the explosion, and afterwards in the control and extinction of the fire.

Amuay, along with the Cardón Refinery, form the Paraguaná Refining Center (CRP). According to a March 2012 risk assessment survey for the Sydney-based Global Insurer QBE, Amuay was running at 500 thousand barrels per day (kb/d) crude rate (design is 635kb/d) and Cardón was operating at 195kb/d crude rate (design is 305kb/d).

Jesús Luongo, CRP’s General Manager, rejected the “Truth Over Amuay” commission’s attempt to deliver the report and PDVSA has refused to receive the report.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, last week, repeated claims of sabotage and that he had proof. “It’s confirmed, I want to announce it . . . it was a sabotage by desperate sectors . . . they believed that by setting a refinery on fire they would beat [the late President] Chávez in the [December 2012] elections.” Petroleum and Mines Minister Rafael Ramírez, echoed “We have all the evidence which demonstrates that our oil industry was sabotaged again.”

Originally, Ramírez labeled the accident “catastrophic,” but recently said, “What happened in Amuay a year ago was an unusual incident that is currently under investigation.”

Last year, Ramírez told BBC World that “there would be three investigations.” The Attorney General’s Office, PDVSA, and forensic police would provide separate reports. Ramírez, who is also the president of PDVSA, defended the independence of the Attorney General’s Office which he said had “functional autonomy.”

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz confessed last month that “from a technical standpoint, this enquiry is very complex; it is not easy.” In August 2012, Ortega said her office had “both human and technical resources . . . to find out the true facts.” However, still no answers are available despite 50 experts, interviews with over 400 witnesses, and some 160 inspections.

Machado said that the Attorney General’s Office had initially offered a response within 120 days of the accident, while PDVSA’s internal norms and procedures establish reporting within 60 or 90 days, pending requests from the Board of Directors. She added that no explanations had been offered by the police, nor by the Environment Ministry.

The QBE survey confirmed delays in major maintenance and underinvestment, according to the MUD report. Five months prior to the tragedy, the survey identified a “vapor cloud explosion and fire following” and noted that alarm management systems were “overloaded,” contrary to Engineering Equipment Material Users Association (EEMUA) standards and had been since 2008.

IHS Global Insight has said the significance of the MUD report is that it “highlights the ongoing increased operational risks that PDVSA’s refineries and oil installations are facing.” The global information company said sources have revealed that “PDVSA has not filed an insurance claim following the accident and that the Amuay Refinery is not insured.”

The MUD’s investigation was done in collaboration with the Center for Energy Orientation (COENER), oil industry experts, and NGOs involved in the recovery efforts, said Machado.

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