$16.6 Million in Fines After Fatal Blast at a Connecticut Plant
By RUSS BUETTNER
Published: August 5, 2010 New York Times
Federal safety officials on Thursday issued $16.6 million in proposed fines in connection with a huge explosion at a power plant that killed six workers in Middletown, Conn., determining that construction companies had blatantly disregarded industry procedures designed to safeguard workers.
The fines, the third largest ever issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a single episode, stem from accusations of 371 violations, including 225 considered “willful,” found after the Feb. 7 blast, which occurred as flammable natural gas was being shot through a supply pipe to purge it of debris. Fifty people were injured in the explosion.
Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said the companies had “blatantly disregarded” accepted industry procedures, their own safety guidelines and “common sense.” Ms. Solis added that the deaths and injuries could have been prevented.
“These fines and penalties reflect the gravity and severity of the deadly conditions created by the companies managing the work at the site,” Ms. Solis said during a conference call with reporters. “No operation and no deadline is worth cutting corners and costing a single human life.”
Local and state law enforcement agencies are still determining whether to bring criminal charges in the case. Civil lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of injured and deceased workers.
David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said companies stood to collect “very significant financial incentives” if they met deadlines at the construction site for Kleen Energy Systems. Dr. Michaels said OSHA believed that the general contractor, O&G Industries, stood to collect a $19 million bonus if it could get the plant running by May 31.
“What I can’t say is what role those played in the incident occurring,” he said. “But there is no question that they were there.”
The dangers of using flammable gas to clear pipes have been well established. Less than a year before the Middletown explosion, a similar blast at the ConAgra Foods Slim Jim plant in Garner, N.C., killed four workers. A 1999 explosion at a power plant in Dearborn, Mich., killed six.
In Middletown, natural gas was vented into an area that was partly enclosed by buildings, where dangerous concentrations built up and met one of several possible igniting sources, including welding torches being used nearby, safety investigators found.
The construction companies were cited for failing to vent the gas so it would disperse, failing to remove nonessential workers, allowing welders to keep working during the procedure and failing to train workers.
In June, the United States Chemical Safety Board urged OSHA to prohibit the release of natural gas during purging operations. Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the safety board, said he believed that OSHA had sufficient authority to issue a six-month emergency ban. “There is no safe way to blow hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of flammable natural gas to a workplace,” Dr. Moure-Eraso said. “It shouldn’t be done, and the practice needs to be banned as soon as possible.”
Dr. Michaels said OSHA saw the use of flammable gas to clear pipes as inherently dangerous and requiring immediate attention because there were plans for 125 similar power plants across the country.
OSHA has issued a warning letter to other operators of gas-fired power plants urging them not to make the mistakes made in Middletown and to consider using alternatives to flammable gas. But the agency stopped short of issuing an emergency ban on the practice, and is reviewing whether a ban could sustain a legal challenge.
“We would love to be able to ban this, but we can’t,” Dr. Michaels said.
The companies have 15 days to contest the fines, and Dr. Michaels said companies typically did challenge the findings when the fines were so large. OSHA calls the penalties “proposed” and considers the violations accusations until the challenges are addressed.
The largest fine, $8.3 million, was issued to O&G Industries, stemming from 139 violations, including 119 considered willful. O&G said it intended to contest the findings. In a statement, the company said that workers had logged 1.7 million hours of labor before the explosion with only one workplace accident.
"This is an impressive safety record by any standard and demonstrates the rigor of O&G’s safety programs,” the statement said.
Keystone Construction and Maintenance Inc., which was in charge of the piping and oversaw the gas blow, was fined $5.7 million. Keystone issued a statement saying it “strongly disagrees” with the citations and intended to “confer with OSHA and, if need be, contest the citations.”
Bluewater Energy Services, which was to handle the startup operation, was fined $896,000. Fourteen subcontractors were fined a total of $686,000.
Dr. Michaels said the only larger fines in OSHA history were both issued to the oil giant BP, including an $87 million penalty issued last year for failing to correct safety problems after a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers at its refinery in Texas City, Tex.