HOUSTON/CARACAS, March 24 (Reuters) - Serious delays to load and unload vessels at Venezuela's main crude port started to create a backlog of tankers last week that is now extending to the island of Curacao, according to traders, a union representative and Thomson Reuters data.
Some 70 tankers were anchored around state-run PDVSA's ports in Venezuela and the Caribbean, most of them waiting to load oil for exports and also to discharge imported crude and products, according to Thomson Reuters vessel tracking data.
The ensuing backlog is similar to a situation late last year, when PDVSA failed to comply with prepayment contracts agreed with its main oil suppliers.
But the accumulation of vessels is not related to payment issues this time and it has formed faster, the data say, jeopardizing crude exports of the OPEC-member country.
A union leader and a legislator blamed technical problems with the Jose port's loading arms that are causing incremental delays for filling and discharging cargoes.
PDVSA did not answer a request for comment. Venezuela exports 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude with the United States and China as main destinations.
As of March 23, 36 Venezuelan crude cargoes, including Orinoco belt's diluted oil and blends loaded at Jose, had arrived to the United States, showing a slight decline versus typical exports volumes, according to Thomson Reuters Trade Flows data.
But traders and union sources said the situation could worsen if out of service equipment is not repaired soon.
"Of 11 marine loading arms, only four are currently working. This situation has been worsening in the last three weeks. Loading time has extended to more than four days from an average of 40 hours," Eudis Girot, an oil union leader, told Reuters.
A marine loading arm is a device consisting on articulated steel pipes that connect a tankship to a cargo terminal.
A source from a contractor that services Jose said maintenance problems are not new as old equipment is often not replaced on time.
As PDVSA is using several oversea terminals to store and blend oil, the broken arms at Jose are creating a knock-out effect and delaying shipments to the Caribbean, particularly affecting crude imports and exports in Curacao.
Two fuel cargoes coming from the United States to Jose on the tankers Strofades and Mare Atlantic have been waiting for more than a week, according to the Thomson Reuters data. And the tanker Orpheas that arrived in Curacao from the U.S. Gulf Coast on March 22 with 500,000 barrels of WTI crude has not discharged yet, the data showed. (With additional reporting by Mircelys Guanipa in Paraguana and Liz Hampton in Houston)