At least 27 workers died when a gas plant blew up at Algeria’s largest refinery complex on the Mediterranean coast and halted its oil and gas production, officials said Tuesday.
The powerful blast and consequent fires devastated the vast petrochemical site in the port city of Skikda, 310 miles east of the capital Algiers, on Monday evening.
Officials at the scene said they believed an accident at a gas boiler caused the blast, which also injured 72 people, was felt for miles and destroyed three liquefied natural gas plants.
“We continue to clear away debris ... and try to find survivors, if there are any,” Energy and Mines Minister Chakib Khelil told state radio at the site. Several people were still believed missing.
A French and a Turkish worker were injured in the blast, officials said. Almost 30 workers were still hospitalized. Most suffered facial injuries.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who toured the site and comforted the injured in hospital, said an official inquiry would investigate one of Algeria’s deadliest energy accidents.
Algeria is the world’s second-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas after Indonesia. A quarter of its shipments leave from the port of Skikda, all to southern Europe.
“We have halted the refinery of Skikda as a preventive measure,” Khelil told state radio.
Khelil said oil exports had been formally suspended but gave no details.
He said the cause of the accident, which sent already strong oil prices higher to 10-month peaks over $36 a barrel for U.S. crude futures, was not yet known.
Khelil did not say whether the oil installations were damaged. State-owned energy group Sonatrach said pipelines to the port were unaffected by the blast and consequent fires.
Key oil port shut
The minister did not say when the 335,000-barrel-per-day refinery would re-open but stressed that the OPEC-member would honor its export commitments.
A shipping agent said the main oil port was shut.
Algeria, which has been hit by a decade of Islamic rebel violence, has one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves. It is a key supplier of gas to Europe and its $65 billion economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports.
Officials told Reuters it was too early to assess the damage because it was so extensive, with metal, glass and concrete debris spread across the 227-acre site.
Several workers, many crying and angry, met Bouteflika at the refinery complex, where 12,000 people work.
The workers complained that they had warned an accident would happen and that the boiler was faulty but no one listened.
The head of security at the gas plants told state radio he heard vibrations and irregular noise at a boiler just before the blast. Specialists had been told a year ago of the defective boiler but it had only been superficially repaired, he said.