CSB Issues Case Study of Formosa Plastics Point Comfort, Texas, Fire and Explosions: Unprotected Piping, Non-Fireproofed Structures, Lack of Automatic Shutoff Valves Noted as Causes; Flame-Resistant Clothing Recommended

July 20, 2006

Washington, DC, July 20, 2006 - The U. S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued its final report and recommendations today in the October 6, 2005, fire and explosions at the Formosa Plastics Corporation, USA, plant in Point Comfort, Texas. In addition, the CSB released a Safety Video which includes a computer animation depicting events leading to the accident.

The Point Comfort complex, on the Texas Gulf Coast, is the largest Formosa facility in the U.S., employing 1,400 full-time workers and 400 contactors. The accident occurred in the plant's Olefins II Unit, which converts either natural gas liquids or naphtha into products such as propylene and ethylene. The accident began when a vehicle - a forklift towing a trailer loaded with cylinders of breathing air used in maintenance - snagged a valve, pulling it out of the system. This caused the release of a large volume of propylene which then ignited, creating a large fire. The initial explosion knocked several operators to the ground and burned two men, one seriously. Fourteen workers sustained minor injuries evacuating the complex.

The CSB Case Study concludes that had the Olefins II unit been equipped with automated shutdown valves it may have been possible to stop the propylene flow, limiting the size of the fire. Operators were unable to reach manual valves to stop the release due to the presence of the growing vapor cloud.

The investigation noted that the valve hit by the trailer was unguarded, and vulnerable to being hit by vehicles. The Case Study also noted that some steel supports were not fireproofed, and collapsed. This caused the failure of pipes designed to carry flammable hydrocarbons to the unit's flare system, where they could be safely burned in the atmosphere. Without this safety system in place, pressurized flammable gases continued to feed the fire, which burned for five days. In addition, the CSB found that flame resistant clothing was not required for all employee activities within the Olefins II unit where there were large quantities of flammable liquids and gases.

CSB Board Member John Bresland said, "This began with a seemingly minor event, in which a trailer bumped into a drain valve. But the incident had disastrous consequences because the facility was not better prepared for a large chemical release. The fires and explosions at Formosa's Point Comfort plant provide compelling reasons to analyze vulnerabilities that could lead to a major chemical accident."

CSB lead investigator Robert Hall said, "Our investigation focused on how this facility was designed to protect against major fire hazards. We found that the unit's design engineering firm used plans that had not been updated to incorporate the latest standards for fireproofing steel structures. Furthermore, workers were not wearing flame resistant clothing, which would have helped to protect them against the flash fire that occurred. We found that improved design practices and protective clothing could have reduced the impact of this accident."

The Board issued several formal safety recommendations. Formosa Plastics Corp. USA, the Point Comfort plant, was urged to revise its policies and procedures for analyzing hazards, to include vehicle impact dangers, fireproofing of structural steel and mechanisms for controlling chemical releases such as remotely controlled isolation valves. The Board also recommended that Formosa provide fire resistant clothing to workers exposed to the dangers of flash fires.

The Board recommended that Kellogg, Brown, and Root, the company that designed Formosa's facility, use the most current safety standards - including standards for fireproofing -- when designing new facilities. And the Center for Chemical Process Safety, a leading safety organization, was urged to strengthen its hazard evaluation guidelines to include vehicle impact hazards and isolation of equipment during emergencies.

The CSB Safety Video, "Fire and Explosions at Formosa Plastics Corp.," may be viewed and downloaded on www.CSB.gov from the Video Room. Copies of this and all CSB videos are available on a DVD and may be obtained free of charge by submitting an online request form found on the website.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in safety management systems, regulations, and industry standards.

The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Visit our website, www.CSB.gov.

For more information, contact Sandy Gilmour, 202-251-5496, or Dr. Daniel Horowitz, Director of Public Affairs, 202-441-6074. If neither is available on July 20, contact Steve Selk, 202-261-7623 or 202-378-3515 (cell).


Back to news