At least three workers have been killed after an explosion sparked a fire at a Patagonian oil refinery, authorities in Neuquén Province confirmed on Thursday.
In response to the fatalities, the Private Oil and Gas Union of Río Negro, Neuquén and La Pampa (Sindicato de Petróleo y Gas Privado de Río Negro, Neuquén y La Pampa), Argentina’s largest oil and gas union, called for an immediate strike in the face of what it described as "repeated situations" at plants in the sector, citing safety concerns.
The explosion at the refinery owned by the local firm New American Oil in the Neuquén town of Plaza Huincul hit "one of the main crude oil tanks ... with a tremendous knock-on effect," local mayor Gustavo Suárez told the LU5 local radio station.
The blast happened in the small hours of Thursday morning and the subsequent blaze destroyed six trucks, Suárez said, as well as claiming at least three lives. The cause of the fire is still being investigated.
Dozens of fire-fighters, reinforced from neighbouring communities, fought for over six hours to keep the flames "from spreading to other adjoining tanks to prevent them from exploding." Once they had doused the fire, they then had to cool down the high temperatures at the adjoining tanks.
"At this stage it has been established that there are three dead," said Suarez, without commenting on whether others were injured or missing although there were reports of an ongoing search for missing workers.
By midday, a fire in one part of the refinery was "more than 70 percent extinguished," said fire brigade chief Jose Acuña. There was still a fire raging dangerously close to the fuel tanks on Thursday afternoon.
Nearby schools were evacuated, the local government said.
The provinces of Río Negro, Neuquén and La Pampa are all home to several refineries.
Local government officials and the directors of major oil companies, refineries and service companies in the region called an emergency meeting for the following day, a call endorsed by the trade union.
The three workers, who died were “doing their duty on the night shift” according to the Cutral Co al instante website, were identified as Gonzalo Molina, Fernando Jara and a third surnamed Herrera.
Meanwhile Ernesto Karstan, deputy fire chief of the Plaza Huincul Voluntary Firemen, commented that six firemen had to be hospitalised due to carbon monoxide poisoning and high blood pressure, as well as others suffering burns from the heat radiating from the tanks.
According to early information, the fire started in one of the refinery’s crude oil storage tanks, spreading to the building, the trucks and the workers inside the plant.
Neuquén Civil Defence and Civic Protection Undersecretary Martin Giusti told the local newspaper La Mañana Neuqúen that there were problems with the water supply.
“They are asking for water tankers with cisterns. EPAS cleared one and they are asking nearby municipalities,” said the Civil Defence official.
In a press conference Giusti regretted the deaths of the three workers and thanked the fire-fighters "for being able to contain the fire, extinguish it and now go cooling things down."
"Prosecutors and forensic experts are now investigating why the fire started," highlighted the official.
Provincial police inspector and safety coordinator Roberto Bello said: "Forensic experts from the fire-fighters and the local government will set to work to compile all the information required by the prosecutors."
Responding to the fatalities, the Sindicato de Petróleo y Gas Privado de Río Negro, Neuquén y La Pampa trade union launched an all-out strike throughout the territory covered by their organisation "in the face of the contempt for life and security."
"Fed up with the lack of commitment to the lives of workers, the board of directors [of the union have] decided to launch a total strike of activities in the territorial scope of the organisation," the union said.
"Urgent measures must be taken to bring an end to this permanent contempt for the lives of the workers as if they were spare parts. How many men and women must give their lives so that the companies understand that they cannot keep working this way?" insisted the oil workers’ union.
The union also issued a report, “Antecedents of the oil industry in the region,” detailing that between 2018 and the first half of this year 11 workers have died on the shale oil and gas deposits.
The Neuquén provincial government issued a press communiqué underlining that its Energy, Mining and Fossil Fuel department had intervened, while adding that the operative and safety regimes are monitored by the national government’s Energy Secretariat.