Update on Phillips 66 K-Resin Plant Incident
An explosion Monday March 27th rocked a Phillips Petroleum Co. chemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel, killing one worker and sending at least 66 workers to local hospitals while keeping area residents indoors for more than two hours. The explosion was felt over a wide area and workers at neighboring plants, area residents and schoolchildren initially were urged to remain indoors for the first two hours of the incident. The fire is reported to be related to "knock down" effects from the blast in a reactor. Several days after the incident, four Phillips employees and one contract worker remained hospitalized in stable condition.
Within the complex, the Phillips' plants not involved in the incident suspended production. Operations and maintenance personnel and outside experts then verified the integrity of the safety and process systems. The polyethylene and polypropylene plants were put back into production after a thorough safety check and discussions with employees, union leadership and OSHA. The K-Resin plant was to remain closed indefinitely.
As usual, the Chemical Safety and Investigation Board has an excellent summary of news reports at its CIRC site.
"The most plausible scenario at this point is that a dry butadiene tank -- taken off line, believed to be empty and in a purge mode -- had sufficient 'popcorn' polymer and butadiene in the tank to react," said Jim Ross, General Manager of HCC. "We also believe the popcorn polymer plugged the purge lines so that an effective purge was not taking place. Under those circumstances, it appears that a reaction of residual popcorn polymer and butadiene could provide enough heat to overpressure the vessel, resulting in vessel failure."
A Phillips investigation team was mobilized to help determine what caused the tragic incident and has been focusing on a storage tank that had been taken off line. Although working cooperatively with OSHA, the investigation is independent of those being conducted by Federal officials. The Phillips investigation team consists of corporate personnel, representatives from the plant's unions (PACE and IBEW), its contractors, Brock and Zachry, and ECRC, a firm specializing in safety audits and services. The team has also retained the services of Wilfred Baker Engineering, Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, which specializes in industrial incidents.
Also in the first week after the incident, FBI agents were called to the explosion site. "They are investigating whether the integrity of the scene has been compromised," according to press comments by Phillips spokesman Jere Smith. The agents were reportedly looking into allegations that a Phillips supervisor and engineer had entered a control room in the K-Resin plant Thursday and may have tampered with a lock box containing data that could help explain why a tank of the chemical butadiene exploded Monday afternoon. An attorney for Phillips said, "I am certain the FBI will not find any criminal violations."
State Senator Mario Gallegos was calling for a criminal investigation of the Phillips petroleum chemical plant in Pasadena The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the FBI are already investigating the March 27th blast. The Galena Park Democrat has asked federal, state and local authorities to probe Phillips' operations.
Tragically, the dead man was Rodney Gott, a 45-year-old supervisor, who barely survived an explosion at the complex in 1989 that killed 23 of his coworkers and injured another 130 employees. At the time Gott was in a building whose roof collapsed but he remained in the blazing plant to save a woman and attend to the injured. Last October, Gott spoke at a memorial ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the blast and said he had often been haunted by the thought that so many lives had been wasted in the tragedy.
This facility is remembered especially for the 1989 accident in a polyethylene manufacturing area where 23 people were killed and 132 injured. OSHA issued fines for $5.6 Million in that incident and it led to the fast tract development of the Process Safety Management Standard.
According to local press reports, OSHA has conducted about 30 inspections of the plant since 1971. Three explosions ripped through the complex last year alone. The worst occurred on June 23rd in the same K-Resin plant. Two people were killed that time. OSHA cited Phillips for 13 safety and health violations after that explosion and fined the company $204,000. OSHA officials say Phillips is contesting the citations. Ray Skinner, local OSHA Chief said the two other blasts in August and April involved polypropylene operations.
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