Wed, Oct 01, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Japan's oil refinery fires sending worrying signals

AP , TOKYO

The powerful earthquake that struck northern Japan caused at least ?2.2 billion yen (US$19.8 million) in damage to buildings and roads and other infrastructure, authorities said yesterday.

Firefighters, meanwhile, put out a spectacular blaze at an oil refinery that burned out of control for nearly two days, enveloping a city of 173,000 in a cloud of pungent black smoke and threatening to spread to other oil storage tanks.

Though the quake and aftershocks were believed to have sparked the fire, concerns were raised that the refinery, owned by one of Japan's largest oil companies, may have cut corners on its safety precautions.

"Successive accidents at the refinery, including fires in 2000 and 2002, provide worrying signs of the declining safety standards at production sites in Japan," the Nihon Keizai newspaper, a major business daily, said in an editorial yesterday.

The preliminary damage figures -- which government officials on the northern island of Hokkaido acknowledged were only partial -- were the first official assessment of the costs of the cleanup following last Friday's magnitude-8 quake and its aftershocks.

Patching up roads and underground sewage pipes was expected to cost ?104.5 million(US$941,000), while estimates for fixing seawalls and port warehouses and removing boats hit by tsunami -- ocean waves generated by seismic activity -- were ?1.76 billion (US$15.9 million), the Hokkaido government said.

The final estimate was expected to be much higher as some areas of Japan's most sparsely populated major island haven't yet been appraised.

No figures were given for overall corporate losses, nor for damages caused by the oil refinery blaze, which firefighters extinguished yesterday.

The temblor and subsequent aftershocks are believed to have dislodged the cover of the tank, which was filled with 26,000 kiloliters (164,000 barrels) of naphtha -- a highly flammable petroleum byproduct.

The refinery, run by Idemitsu Kosan Company, was not near residential areas in the city of Tomakomai and no injuries were reported. But town officials received hundreds of complaints from residents about the smoke.

The tank was the second at the refinery to catch fire after Friday's earthquake. A tank containing 30,000 kiloliters (189,000 barrels) of crude oil went up in flames the day of the quake.

Over the past three years, there have been five fires at the Idemitsu Kosan refinery, including the two quake-related blazes. None have caused injuries.

The Nihon Keizai said the fires, which reflected a sharp rise in the number of accidents at Japan's petrochemical plants over the past decade, sent "a loud wake-up call" to manufacturers.

Recent statistics "suggest that a combination of plant deterioration and manpower shortages, especially of experienced workers, is rapidly lowering safety at Japanese manufacturing sites," it said.

Company officials have generally refused to comment, saying that they are still investigating the cause of the fire.

The temblor, which injured almost 600 people, hit the northernmost island of Hokkaido hardest, but swayed buildings as far away as Tokyo, about 830km to the southeast. It was the world's strongest in two and a half years.

Three people were listed as missing from the quake, but on Monday one of them returned to his home after a fishing trip.

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