Board Team to Investigate Bethlehem Steel Fire

February 8, 2001

Board Team to Investigate Bethlehem Steel Fire

(Washington, DC - February 8, 2001): The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has dispatched a team of seven accident investigators to the site of a recent fatal fire at a Bethlehem Steel plant. The fire at the Burns Harbor, Indiana, steel mill killed two workers and injured four others, one seriously. The fatalities included one company employee and a contract worker.

The incident occurred on the afternoon of February 2 in conjunction with demolition work on a disused furnace. According to the CSB investigators, maintenance workers were removing a ten-inch valve from a pipe used to supply coke gas fuel to the furnace. Flammable liquid was unexpectedly released and ignited. The resulting fire caused the deaths and injuries. At the time of the incident, the workers were about 20 feet above ground level, with limited means of escape.

Coke gas is produced from coal by a chemical process of destructive distillation, analogous to the production of charcoal from wood. The coke gas (which contains methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide) is used as a fuel, while the carbon-rich solid coke residue is used to produce steel.

An initial focus of the investigation will be to determine why flammable material was still present in piping that was to undergo maintenance work. According to CSB spokesman Dr. Andrea Kidd Taylor, "An investigative team was deployed within hours of the event on Friday. The investigators will determine the circumstances underlying this tragedy and report to the Board. We will be particularly interested in any similarities to past incidents where flammable releases have occurred during maintenance activities on piping."

The CSB is an independent federal agency whose mission is to ensure the safety of workers and the public by preventing chemical incidents. The CSB is a scientific investigatory organization, not an enforcement or regulatory body. The Board determines the root causes of accidents, issues safety recommendations, and performs special studies on chemical safety issues.

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