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Venezuela oil blast evidence of deteriorating infrastructure (+video)

A Saturday explosion at Venezuela's Amuay refinery, the country's largest, claimed at least 39 lives. Engineers and oil executives say the blast is fresh evidence of deteriorating infrastructure in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

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Venezuelan Vice President Elías Jaua said Saturday evening the death toll had reached at least 39 after a blast tore through the country’s biggest oil refinery, Amuay in Falcon state.

Early reports indicated the explosion, at around 1:15 a.m., was caused by a gas leak. The blast damaged nearby homes and destroyed a neighboring National Guard outpost. President Hugo Chávez expressed his “profound grief,” on state television, declaring three days of mourning.

Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles also showed support for the victims, posting on his Twitter account: “We ask Almighty God for the recovery of all those injured in the accident.”

The tragedy, following calamitous oil spills in February, reignited public debate over safety standards at government oil producer Petróleos de Venezuela (Petroleum of Venezuela, or PDSVA) six weeks before Venezuela’s Oct. 7 presidential election. Analysts and industry professionals have long voiced concerns over the overall deterioration of the company.

“There are so many accidents, so many spills that never used to happen, the quality of management has to be bad,” says Heraldo Sifontes, ex-manager of refining for Lagoven (a former PDVSA affiliate). Mr. Sifontes, who managed the Amuay refinery for seven years, pointed out that there will always be accidents in refining, “however, the issue is the frequency you have of these types of problems.”

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