New Venezuelan Report Preaches Sabotage at Amuay Tragedy

Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) has asserted that evidence proves sabotage was behind the country’s deadliest refinery disaster. Meanwhile, the Petroleum and Mines Ministry has dismissed the World Bank arbitration panel’s ruling against the 2007 expropriation of the oil assets of ConocoPhillips. (Read that story here.)

PDVSA President Rafael Ramírez said “seven out of eight bolts of the P-2601 pump of Block 23 were deliberately loosened.” Vibration would then have forced a mechanical fatigue breakage which “permitted a massive and abrupt leak” of olefins, he explained.

The Amuay Refinery after the explosion.

The blast occurred 70 minutes after the control supervisor first detected the leak, according to the report released this week (embedded at the bottom of the page) by the state-run company’s investigative committee. They estimated consequent damages at US$1.1 billion.

Ramírez, who also heads the Petroleum and Mines Ministry, insisted “an external action” caused the tragic event at the Amuay Refinery on August 25, 2012, which resulted in 47 dead and 135 seriously injured.

“Whoever did this was not suicidal,” Ramírez argued. The bolts were left “loosened so that they would work for a while.” He added, “It was not just some defective device that leaked gas.”

Opposition National Assembly (AN) lawmakers in September, 2012, however, established the “Truth Over Amuay” commission. Their report, published last month, alleged underinvestment and delays in major maintenance as the root causes for a vapor cloud explosion — the product of a leak from the collapse of the mechanical seal on one or more of the P-200 pumps at the base of the TK-208 and TK-209 spheres.

PDVSA has repeatedly refused to receive their findings — and Ramírez has fired back: “These are accusations that I reject and combat.”

Amuay, along with the Cardón Refinery, forms the Paraguaná Refining Center (CRP) in the northeastern state of Falcón. They have a combined nameplate capacity of 940,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude.

Reuters recently reported that PDVSA’s full network of refineries were running at 74 percent capacity. An internal report showed that of the 1.62 million bpd total capacity, PDVSA’s network was producing 1.2 million bpd. Fires, small explosions, leakages, and power cuts appear to have been the main culprits. Since May, 15 events have hit PDVSA refineries at Amuay, Cardón, El Palito, Puerto La Cruz, and Isla (Curacao).

“PDVSA is opaque,” says Robert Bottome, a Venezuelan economist and chief editor of the financial publication VenEconomía. “Circumstantial evidence,” as in the increased number of accidents, points to a severely deteriorated company infrastructure, Bottome told the PanAmerican Post.

Gustavo Benítez, a former PDVSA industrial security chief, considers the government’s accounting somewhat “speculative.” The state-run company’s report, he told the Associated Press, neglected to explain why systems at Amuay, which should have prevented the gas cloud from expanding outside the refinery limits, didn’t work. Benítez insisted that “the pump would have had to have been damaged, the sensors [that detect leaks] would have had to have been damaged” and mitigation systems as well. These flaws showed, rather, that “maintenance had been highly inefficient.”

Ramírez has ruled out fault on the part of PDVSA employees, but he says the “Attorney General’s Office will determine who the responsible individuals are.” He linked the sabotage to the “extreme right” and added, the facts “demonstrate that there is a group of foolish people who are capable of bringing the country to situations that no one wants.”

AN Deputy Maria Corina Machado, along with nine other lawmakers from the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), have faced increasing pressure from the government as members of the Truth Over Amuay Commission. Stella Lugo, the governor of Falcón, has made calls to remove Machado’s parliamentary immunity and for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate her and other members of the commission for handing out pamphlets “falsely” warning of continued risks in PDVSA facilities.

Bottome said, in a probable “witch hunt” Machado would be a particularly important target. “She is one of the few who speak out sensibly and intelligently . . . the government doesn’t like that.”

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