U.S. Senate panel looks at Geismar plant explosion

Federal lawmakers and officials discussed Thursday increasing the level of safety inspectors and improving enforcement under existing laws in the wake of recent plant explosions in Geismar and West, Texas.

The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing focused on learning more about what caused the Geismar incident and on what more could be done to prevent explosions like the one in Texas.

The June 13 explosion at Williams Olefins LLC, an ethylene and propylene chemical plant on La. 3115 near Geismar, killed two people, injured more than 100 and resulted in the release of thousands of pounds of chemicals.

“There was a catastrophic failure involving a heat exchanger and associated piping, which broke loose from a distillation tower,” U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said. “It is too soon in the investigation to tell why that equipment failure occurred.”

In the heat exchanger, hydrocarbons are mixed and heated to react chemically and then are cooled before being separated. Propane and propylene, which are both highly flammable, are involved in the processes.

Moure-Eraso said the Chemical Safety Board, which is one of the federal agencies investigating the matter, is bringing in structural engineers and consultants to examine what happened at the Geismar plant.

The investigation, thus far, is focusing on taking aerial photos and questioning witnesses. The facility is still too dangerous to fully access.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said action must be taken quickly by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure more accidents do not occur.

“This should be a wakeup call for all of us, and we must take steps to ensure that such a disaster never happens again,” Boxer said. “Here’s the good news: Under existing law, EPA can strengthen safety at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals.”

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who is the ranking GOP member on the committee, cited the tragic loss of life at not just the Geismar plant, but also the June 14 nitrogen rupture at CF Industries in Donaldsonville that killed one.

“When horrible accidents like this occur, it’s imperative they’re thoroughly and expeditiously investigated,” Vitter said.

Vitter also cautioned that “all the facts” are needed before jumping to conclusions regarding EPA rules and regulations. “It (a tragedy) is used and abused to advance some preexisting agenda,” Vitter said.

Vitter expressed concern that the EPA is subpoenaing some of the information acquired by the Chemical Safety Board during the investigation.

“If EPA subpoenas everything, I’m guessing you’re going to get a lot less cooperation” from Williams Olefins and its employees, Vitter said.

Williams Olefins can cooperate more about investigating the cause of the explosion, Vitter said, but the company may opt to shut off the information flow, if data turned over is potentially used for a criminal investigation.

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Barry Breen, who is in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said he could only say so much publicly, but that “cooperation is important.”

Vitter praised the emergency response to the Geismar explosion.

Rick Webre, director of the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, credited the cooperation between local industry with law enforcement and first responders.

Webre complained that federal coordination mandates are unfunded.

“They have been instrumental in supporting us,” Webre said of the chemical and manufacturing plants in the region.

Moure-Eraso said more process safety inspectors are needed to properly check chemical plant equipment and ensure everything is up to date. The Geismar facility had not undergone federal inspection in recent years.

“When the next major accident occurs in the petrochemical industry, and believe me, they will occur, we will not have the resources to deploy,” Moure-Eraso said.

Breen said the president has requested more funding to add more inspectors.

Moure-Eraso said the April 17 West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion, which killed 15 and injured 200, was preventable.

West is between Dallas and Austin.

Ammonium nitrate, used to make fertilizer, is regulated under a “patchwork” of rules “that has many large holes,” Moure-Eraso said. In West, the ammonium nitrate was kept in wooden storage areas with no sprinkler systems. No regulations required homes and schools to be located farther away, he said.

“This situation must be addressed,” Moure-Eraso said.

Boxer focused on a 2002 Chemical Safety Board recommendation that the EPA strengthen its Risk Management Program by including ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. That recommendation was never adopted. Boxer said thousands of facilities across the nation handle ammonium nitrate every day.