Federal Agency Warned About Gas Explosions Just Days Before CT Plant Disaster

Lindsay Beyerstein

On Sun­day morn­ing, a mas­sive explo­sion rocked the Kleen Ener­gy gas pow­er plant in Mid­dle­town, Conn. At least five work­ers died in the blast, which shook hous­es up to 10 miles away. Res­cuers con­tin­ue to sift through rub­ble in search of sur­vivors. Dozens of peo­ple may still be trapped by debris.

Work­ers were try­ing to purge gas lines when the explo­sion hap­pened, accord­ing to Middletown’s deputy fire mar­shall. At press con­fer­ence last night, Mid­dle­town May­or Sebas­t­ian Giu­liano blamed the blast on the gas purging.

Just three days before the acci­dent, the U.S. Chem­i­cal Safe­ty Board, an inde­pen­dent fed­er­al agency charged with inves­ti­gat­ing seri­ous chem­i­cal acci­dents, held a pub­lic meet­ing to issue urgent rec­om­men­da­tions about gas purg­ing safe­ty. Accord­ing to the report:

The use of gas-fired equip­ment is ubiq­ui­tous in gen­er­al indus­try, cre­at­ing a poten­tial for wide­spread haz­ards if purg­ing of gas lines is not con­duct­ed in the safest pos­si­ble man­ner; sev­er­al seri­ous explo­sions have occurred in the past four years.

When installing a new nat­ur­al gas line, the air in the line must be dis­placed before the gas can start flow­ing. The trick is to stop pump­ing the gas when all the air has been expelled. Oth­er­wise, the flam­ma­ble fumes can accu­mu­late in the air and explode; lethal lev­els can build up before any­one smells gas. When gas lev­els rise above the gas’ low­er explo­sive thresh­old, any source of igni­tion, from a cig­a­rette to a piece of elec­tron­ic equip­ment, can set off the gas. The Wall Street Jour­nal is report­ing rumors that a propane heater was some­how impli­cat­ed in the disaster.

The urgent CSB recom­man­da­tions were issued after four work­ers were killed last June dur­ing an attempt­ed purge of a nat­ur­al gas line at the ConA­gra Slim Jim plant in Gar­ner, North Car­oli­na. The explo­sion brought down near­ly 40% of the roof of the 87,000-sq-ft pack­ag­ing and ware­ouse facil­i­ty. Hun­dreds of work­ers were laid off until fur­ther notice.

The CSB report cit­ed six oth­er major purg­ing acci­dents in five states since 1997. One such explo­sion injured 14 work­ers and damged three floors of a 30-sto­ry Hilton Hotel in Cal­i­for­nia in 2008. A purg­ing acci­dent at a Ford Rouge plant in Dear­born, Mich., killed six work­ers and caused a bil­lion dol­lars in dam­age in 1999.

The CSB rec­om­mend­ed tougher new rules for installing nat­ur­al gas facil­i­ties. When­ev­er prac­ti­ca­ble, gas should be vent­ed out­doors and away from build­ings, not into rooms. If it’s not pos­si­ble to vent out­doors, all non-essen­tial per­son­nel should be evac­u­at­ed while the lines are being purged. Employ­ees should be taught to rely on com­bustible gas detec­tors, and not smell, to mon­i­tor gas levels.

It is not clear how the gas was being purged at the Mid­dle­town plant. How­ev­er, giv­en that between 100 and 200 peo­ple were on the job­site yes­ter­day, it seems unlike­ly that non-essen­tial per­son­nel were evac­u­at­ed before the purge.

The Kleen Ener­gy blast is still being inves­ti­gat­ed. The CSB has sent a sev­en-mem­ber team of experts to Mid­dle­town to help; they’re expect­ed to arrive onsite lat­er today.

Lind­say Bey­er­stein is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Not­ed. Her sto­ries have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Mag­a­zine, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­tographs have been pub­lished in the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hill­man Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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