Washington, DC, October 14, 2005 - The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is continuing its probe of the propylene fire and explosions that heavily damaged an olefins unit at the Formosa Plastics facility in Point Comfort, Texas, on October 6, injuring approximately 13 workers. Most injuries were minor, but two workers were admitted to the burn unit at a Galveston hospital, and one remains hospitalized there.
After six days at the incident site, investigators yesterday returned to Washington, DC, where they planned to brief agency Board members and staff. Investigators have conducted approximately 24 witness interviews; examined the damaged area of the facility's Olefins 2 unit; and reviewed process diagrams, procedures, and other documentary evidence. Based on current evidence, investigators will not recommend a full root-cause investigation of the incident by the CSB. However, work to understand the circumstances of the incident will continue.
CSB lead investigator Jim Lay, P.E., said, "Witness accounts indicate that a forklift truck towing an air supply trailer may have collided with a drain line near a ground-level control valve station carrying highly flammable liquid propylene. We intend to gather additional evidence before confirming this theory. Shortly after the trailer entered the vicinity of the valve station, witnesses saw a downward jet of escaping hydrocarbon, which formed a rapidly expanding vapor cloud. Within a few minutes, the vapor cloud found an ignition source, causing an explosion and fire." Major fires continued for a number of hours as additional piping was damaged and more flammable hydrocarbons were released.
Mr. Lay said that access to the exact point of origin of the release was still restricted this week due to structural hazards, residual flammable materials, and ongoing emergency response and firefighting activities. "Portions of the olefins unit where the incident was centered show extensive damage from heat. The site shows relatively little blast damage, consistent with a series of unconfined, open-air explosions or deflagrations," Mr. Lay said.
Immediate issues before the investigative team include characterizing the extent of secondary damage from the explosion and examining the effectiveness of the facility's vehicular control policies and the protection of vulnerable piping from vehicular collision. Mr. Lay said team members would be returning to the plant as early as next week to continue the probe.
In addition to work at the Formosa site, investigators went into the Point Comfort and Port Lavaca communities to assess the impact of the incident. One school near the plant was temporarily evacuated on the day of the incident and two highways were closed for several hours. Investigators determined that approximately 15 members of the public sought medical evaluations at area hospitals; none was admitted to the hospital for treatment.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical incidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical incidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure, as well as inadequacies in safety management systems.
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. Please visit our website, www.csb.gov. For more information, contact Daniel Horowitz at (202) 261-7613 and (202) 441-6074.