Feb 21, 2007
Statement of CSB Supervisory Investigator Don Holmstrom Updating the Public on the Investigation of the Valero McKee Refinery Fire
February 21, 2007 3:30 p.m. CST Amarillo, Texas
Good afternoon and thank you for coming to this public briefing of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. I have a prepared statement, and then I will take some questions.
We may have some reporters joining us by conference call; since there are some TV cameras here I'll ask everyone to hold their questions until I reach the end of the statement, and I'll ask those of you on the phone to mute your microphones if possible.
My name is Don Holmstrom, H-O-L-M-S-T-R-O-M. I am the supervisory investigator who has been here with our field team at the Valero McKee refinery near Dumas.
The Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency, established and funded by Congress in 1998. Our board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and we are structured similar to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The CSB conducts independent, scientific root-cause investigations of major chemical accidents. We do not issue fines, citations, or new rules but we do issue safety recommendations designed to prevent future chemical accidents across the country.
We issue lengthy, public reports on the root causes of accidents, and you can find examples of these report and much other information on our website, CSB.gov. You can also sign up there to get regular updates on our work, including this investigation, by email.
Many of you may know the CSB from our investigation of the major refinery explosion at BP Texas City back in 2005, which we plan to complete within the next month. In its history, the CSB has conducted more than 40 such investigations of major accidents at oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities that handle or produce hazardous substances.
A five-member CSB team arrived in Texas late Saturday and began its work at the Valero McKee refinery early Sunday morning. We will be augmenting our team with several additional investigators this week; I will be returning to Washington this evening and briefing the agency on the investigation.
At the point, we proceeding with our accident investigation on multiple fronts, but no formal decision has been taken by the Board on the scope of the inquiry. If we do proceed to an investigation to determine the root causes of this accident, it may be a year-long process. However, we will continue to update the public on our progress as events warrant.
As all of you know, a major fire occurred at the Valero McKee refinery on Friday afternoon, causing more than a dozen injuries. One contract worker, who was critically injured, remains hospitalized. All of the CSB express our sincere hope for his recovery.
Yesterday, CSB investigators inspected the scene of the fire, approaching to within about 200 feet of the fire affected area. We plan to make closer approaches over the next several days as soon as we can assure the safety of our investigators.
The CSB team observed substantial heat damage to equipment and piping in a section of the Propane De-Asphalting or PDA unit.
The PDA unit uses propane to extract refinable materials from a heavy residue of the refinery's crude oil unit. The PDA unit uses propane that is liquefied under high pressure of several hundred pounds per square inch.
No explosion damage was visible from our location. A pipe rack exposed to the fire was heavily damaged and deformed by the fire.
We do not have any estimate on how this damage might impact the restart of the refinery - which is outside the scope of our work -- and we would refer all questions on that issue to Valero.
We have interviewed many eyewitnesses to the accident. The testimony suggests that there likely was a release of liquid propane. At atmospheric pressure, liquid propane rapidly vaporizes and expands to form a vapor cloud. This cloud ignited a short time later.
We are continuing to interview refinery employees and contractors. We are also examining documents provided by the company. Valero is cooperating with the CSB investigation.
Based on interviews, we are particularly interested in a specific area in the north section of the PDA unit, which was the likely location of the initial release. Confirming this as the location will require closer examination. This area was heavily damaged by the fire and has not yet been inspected by the CSB. We plan to enter this area in the very near future, and we plan to inspect specific valves, piping, and equipment in this area.
Near the PDA unit there were a series of large propane storage spheres. We did not observe any visible damage to these spheres from the fire.
However, there were three one-ton chlorine cylinders nearby that were exposed to the fire and some of the contents of the cylinders were likely released. Chlorine is a toxic gas. We understand that these cylinders have now been secured by Valero.
Our investigation continues. Team members continue to interview witnesses and to request additional documents from the Company. We will maintain a team at the site through this weekend and into next week.
That concludes my prepared statement. I'll now be happy to take some questions from the media. Please state your name and affiliation. Reporters who are on the conference line are also welcome to ask questions; please just wait for a convenient pause and ask me to call on you.
[For more information, please contact Director of Public Affairs Daniel Horowitz in Washington, DC, (202) 261-7613 / (202) 441-6074 cell.]