March 15, 2011 / 4:56 PM / in 7 years

Explosion rocks top Venezuela refinery, slows output

PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) - An explosion shook Venezuela’s largest refinery Amuay on Tuesday, slowing but not totally halting operations at the 645,000 barrel-per-day facility as workers fought the blaze.

State oil company PDVSA said a fire, which began just before dawn after the explosion, was out by 10 am (2:30 p.m. British time) and had not caused any injuries. Officials said the explosion was in a furnace in the hydrodesulfurization unit 4 (HD4).

A source at the refinery said its 104,000 bpd catalytic cracker diesel and gasoline unit had to reduce its load and would stay like that for several days during repair work.

He could not give further details.

Exports from South America’s top oil producer have dropped in recent years, in part because refineries and upgraders that turn its tar-like Orinoco crude into exportable oil have suffered numerous accidents and planned stoppages.

The cracker was not damaged in the blast.

Residents of villages near the site said the ground shook with the force of the blast on the northwestern Paraguana peninsula where the refinery is located along with its sister operation Cardon in one of the world’s largest refinery complexes. Venezuelan newspaper EL Mundo said windows broke in houses in the area from the force of the blast.

“We thought it was an earthquake, but then we saw the flames which were at least 5 meters (16 feet) high,” local resident Herbert Vivas told Reuters.

By 9 am (1330 GMT) the flames could no longer be seen from outside the refinery, witnesses said.

“PDVSA guarantees the fulfilment of its commitments, both in the national and international market,” the company added in its statement.

A fire at a Cardon dock last year caused shipping to be halted for four days and followed another massive blaze at a PDVSA fuel terminal on the nearby island of Bonaire.

Four units at the 335,000 bpd Isla refinery run by PDVSA on the Caribbean island of Curacao have been paralyzed since last week because of problems with steam supply.

Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by David Gregorio

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