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US: Fumes Delay Blast Probe


by Dina Cappiello, Tom Fowler and Kevin MoranHouston Chronicle
March 30th, 2005

Editor's Note: For ongoing coverage of the BP blast, visit the Houston Chronicle's Special Report, Texas City Explosion.


 A 67-foot hole in a benzene storage tank caused by the Texas City BP refinery explosion has left the air too tainted for investigators to enter, delaying a probe of the blast site, officials say.

A week after the explosion in the refinery's octane-enhancing unit killed 15 workers and injured more than 100, investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board are unable to get an up-close look because they don't have the training or equipment to enter the area until an all-clear is sounded, said board spokesman Daniel Horowitz.

A zone around the affected tank, which at the time of the blast was holding 525,000 gallons of benzene, is off-limits except for workers wearing respirators or oxygen masks. The leaking benzene tank is almost 300 yards from the unit that exploded last Wednesday.

"It is emitting benzene vapors on an ongoing basis, at a level that would be a health concern," Horowitz said. "The type of respirators our people carry are not able to cope with this amount safely."

BP was erecting scaffolding near the tank to blanket the destroyed roof with a foam. That will reduce the emissions, which are being caused by benzene pooling on the collapsed roof and then vaporizing into the surrounding air.

"We treat benzene very seriously," said Bill Stephens, a BP spokesman. "We are just not going to do anything that is going to put any investigator at risk."

Stephens said addressing the problem was made more complicated by a court order to not disturb evidence at the scene.

Most, if not all, of the 15 workers who died appeared to be working on a unit not involved in the blast.

BP spokeswoman Marti Grazzier said the 11 JE Merit employees who died were preparing to work on another unit near the isomerization unit. A spokesman for Fluor said the three workers from that company who died were quality control inspectors who had worked on the unit in the past but were not working on it at the time of the explosion.

 

Delay not unusual

It's not yet clear if the final worker, a contractor from General Electric Energy, was involved in the maintenance of the unit that exploded. A spokeswoman for the company would only confirm that the company had a fatality at the plant due to the incident.

CSB's Horowitz said it's not unusual for investigators to be delayed for a number of days from entering a blast site. It sometimes takes weeks for accident sites to be safe enough for further investigation because of hazardous chemicals and unstable structures in the area, he said.

In addition to the benzene concerns at the Texas City site, there were lingering concerns over how structurally sound parts of the unit are, Horowitz explained.

Still, investigators were busy conducting interviews with witnesses and reviewing data collected by the plants' computerized monitoring system. On Tuesday they conducted 18 interviews, and they hope to keep up the pace, eventually compiling scores of eyewitness accounts.

They will send a photographer into surrounding neighborhoods today to document damage to other structures.

Tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and by the company around the benzene tank over the weekend and on Tuesday detected concentrations of benzene — a natural ingredient of oil and a carcinogen — slightly above the standard set for the workplace, EPA officials said.

However, winds on Tuesday were blowing some of the fumes toward the isomerization unit, which lies almost 300 yards from the tank.

The isomerization unit produces components used to raise the octane content of gasoline.

Aerial photographs of the damaged structure, known as Tank 108, show a dark hole edged with jagged metal, as if the tank's top had been torn away with a giant can opener.

Karen McCormick, lead on-site coordinator for the EPA, said either debris or a pressure wave from the explosion caused the roof collapse. Normally, the roof on a tank would prevent health-damaging vapors from escaping if another roof below were leaking.

 

BP tried to empty tank

BP had tried unsuccessfully to empty the tank, draining it only of 35,000 gallons, before the floating roof — which sits on top of the liquid chemical but beneath the crushed dome — appeared to be working improperly. There's enough benzene in the tank to make the liquid 11 feet deep, the statement said.

"The blast was very extreme to where things were crushed and car windows crashed," McCormick said.

She said the leak was detected Friday, after BP's contractor, Garner Environmental Services Inc., got some "hits" in the tank's vicinity.

EPA officials, whose focus up until that point was on air quality outside of the plant's fence, then moved in to help.

"We felt very confident it was that tank itself and it was not going to cause any off-site impacts to public health," McCormick said. "We started narrowing our focus onto those tanks and other problems with the tanks' integrity."

Her team and state investigators who were monitoring air quality left the plant site Sunday. Their job now will focus on whether any environmental laws are being broken.

''From here on out our job is to look at any kind of violations and enforcement action," said Adria Dawidczik, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman.

BP officials, in a report filed with the state Friday, estimated that the pooling of benzene was releasing 20 pounds of benzene per day into the air. The company is permitted to release .58 pounds per day, however, BP officials said the emissions were so small they no longer had to report them to the state.

While the company is permitted to release .58 pounds per day, BP officials said emissions were so small they no longer had to report them to the state.

BP spokesman Hugh Depland said 10 people remained hospitalized Tuesday. He said five were still in very serious condition in intensive care units. The other five were in less serious condition.

Meanwhile, hundreds of mourners paid their respects at services for the victims on Tuesday. Funerals were conducted for Lorena Cruz, 32, of La Porte; Ryan Rodriguez, 28, of Baytown; Glenn Bolton, 50, of College Station; and Eugene White, 53, of North Carolina.

Services are scheduled today for Larry Thomas, 63, of Huffman; Arthur Ramos, 59, of Houston; Linda Rowe, 47, of Hornbeck, La.; and James Rowe, 48, of Hornbeck, La.


Chronicle reporter Cindy Horswell contributed to this story.






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