This photo, posted by the Chemical Safety Board, shows the fuel depot burning.

Strong Parallels Between Bayamon, Buncefield: CSB

The CSB will examine similarities and differences between the two fuel depot incidents in England and Puerto Rico, trying to help the industry understand what went wrong.

Accidental overfilling of a gasoline storage tank apparently created a gasoline vapor cloud that ignited at 12:23 a.m. Oct. 23 at Caribbean Petroleum Corp.'s oil storage and distribution facility in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, U.S. Chemical Safety Board representatives said today during a news conference in San Juan. While CSB board member William Wright and Investigator-in-Charge Jeffrey Wanko, P.E., cautioned their findings are still preliminary, they said the Bayamon blast and subsequent fire closely resemble the 2005 incident at Total UK's Buncefield fuel depot near London.

Wanko said operational personnel at the Bayamon depot's control center could not monitor liquid levels in the tank that overfilled on their computers that night; they had to stand beside the tank and read a gauge indicating the level inside, he said. Only seven people were on site at the time of the Bayamon blast, when the gasoline tank was being filled with gasoline from a ship docked at the facility -- two security guards, three Caribbean Petroleum employees, and two contract employees. He said the last time an employee was near the gasoline tank that night to check it was 11:20 p.m., an hour before the cloud was seen and the explosion occurred.

The vapor cloud probably extended 1,000 feet east, north, and west of the tank that night, spreading downhill, before the ignition occurred about one-quarter mile from the tank; homes and businesses more than a mile away were damaged by the blast, he added. "I was taken aback by how much damage was done in this particular case," Wright said. "It also parallels [Buncefield]. It's just luck that it occurred in the middle of the night. . . . Thankfully, there were only minor injuries from this devastating blast."

Wanko said "faulty safety systems on tanks" and that fact that operators in remote locations could not monitor levels in a tank as it was being filled are common to both Bayamon and Buncefield. Total UK pleaded guilty last week to two criminal charges related to the Buncefield explosion and fire, which caused 43 injuries and damaged nearby homes. "We are obtaining copies of everything that the [Bayamon] operators and the shift supervisors had on their computers," Wanko said. "This particular tank could not be seen on their computers." He and Wright said they do not yet know where Caribbean Petroleum stood in terms of its compliance with fuel depot industry guidance for tank monitoring equipment and systems.

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