Easy, Deadly Gas Blows

OSHA warned gas power plant operators they could face similar fines if the same thing happens at a plant they build or renovate.

Unable to understand why anyone would clean out an almost-completed $1 billion plant's piping with high-pressure natural gas and vent the gas into an occupied area with numerous ignition sources present, I asked U.S. Chemical Safety Board member John Bresland what he thought of the act that caused a powerful explosion and six deaths on Sunday morning, Feb. 7, at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Conn. He agreed Sept. 13 that the practice made no sense.

"I was actually surprised to find that there is an operation like this," Bresland said. "It just seems strange to me that you're building this billion-dollar facility and you come to the end of it, and you do this very hazardous operation that ultimately results in the facility blowing up. You spent a billion dollars, you wasted a billion dollars, and you're going to have to start rebuilding it.

"If you were the engineer or architect designing these facilities," he added, "you would certainly be aware of what happened at Kleen Energy, and you would look at safer ways to do this operation, such as using compressed nitrogen or compressed air. . . . You have to look at the cost-benefit of this: It's easy to do, but the potential hazards are very, very great."

That they are. OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels sent and released publicly an Aug. 27 letter warning gas power plant operators they could face similar fines if the same thing happens at a plant they build or renovate. (OSHA's proposed fines in the Kleen Energy case total about $16.5 million.) Cleaning piping in this way is inherently dangerous, said Michaels, urging the companies to use non-flammable methods instead. And if they do decide to use a gas blow, "Specifically, you should vent the natural gas vertically and above all structures, eliminate all ignition sources, remove all non-essential workers from the site, and monitor potentially hazardous atmospheres during and after completion of the blows."

You'll appreciate his letter (www.osha.gov/doc/industryalert_clean.html). To understand what went wrong in Middletown nine months ago, read Katie Benner's Fortune magazine article about the plant's principals at http://money.cnn.com/2010/09/08/news/companies/kleen_energy_explosion.fortune/index.htm. It's quite a tale.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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