Senate panel to discuss plant explosions, chemical threats

A U.S. Senate panel on Thursday will discuss the deadly April 17 fertilizer manufacturing plant explosion in West, Texas, and the June 13 explosion and fire at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, which released thousands of pounds of chemicals.

Several agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, are investigating the June 13 accident.

According to required release reports submitted by Williams Olefins to the DEQ, the pollution included 2,397 pounds of ethylene, 23,089 pounds of propylene, 47 pounds of benzene and 30 pounds of 1,3-butadiene. Other releases included 537 pounds of carbon dioxide, 539 pounds of nitrogen oxide and 85 pounds of soot.

“The above release estimates are based on Williams’ best engineering judgment at this time. The facility is still essentially shut down, and Williams does not have full access to facility distributed control system data,” according to the report to DEQ. “The hydrodcarbon vapors were combusted during the fire. Material routed to the flare was combusted. Based on available air monitoring data at the time, no compounds were detected off site.”

Air monitoring from the DEQ and the EPA was ongoing the following day, June 14, when the facility reported additional estimated releases of 80,000 pounds of ethylene and 53,000 pounds of ethane which occurred after a safety relief valve automatically lifted on an ethylene processing equipment.

Since the fire the day before shut the facility down, there was still some material in the ethylene fractionators system which started warming up, according to the report to DEQ. That warming up of the material caused the safety pressure valve to open for about 16 minutes. “The ethylene/ethane stream was released to the air and dissipated. There was no known off-site impact,” according to the report.

Air monitoring from DEQ and EPA didn’t find impacts outside the facility’s borders.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. in Washington. The hearing, “Oversight of Federal Risk Management and Emergency Planning Programs to Prevent and Address Chemical Threats, Including the Events Leading Up to the Explosions in West, Texas and Geismar, La.,” will include a presentation from Rick Webre, director of the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The Chemical Safety Board will also present and update its investigations into both explosions at the hearing.

The Geismer explosion and fire left two people dead and more than 100 people requiring medical attention. The Texas explosion killed more than 15 people, injured more than 160 and destroyed or damaged more than 150 homes and a 50-unit apartment building, according to The Associated Press.

In a news release Monday, Williams Partners said its initial damage assessment of the June 13 incident is underway and “neither the full extent of the damage nor the time needed to make repairs is known.”

The company said it is cooperating with investigators and has key personnel onsite to begin developing plans to make repairs, undertake a previously planned plant maintenance turnaround and complete a 600 million pound-per-year expansion of the olefins operation.

Based on initial observations, the company said, the explosion originated in the propylene fractionator area of the plant; the piping, heat exchangers and reboilers in the area will likely need to be replaced and significant amounts of the electrical power cable and control wiring will need to be replaced. Other equipment will be evaluated when the company has access to the incident area.

At this time, there are no Williams employees hospitalized; one contract worker remains in the hospital.