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Investigation into Middletown power plant explosion

An important question faces investigators of Sunday’s tragic explosion on the building site of the Middletown, Connecticut power plant: were contractors at the Kleen Energy plant site following accepted standard safety practices?

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has deployed a seven-member team to investigate the Middletown explosion. While their admission to the site was initially blocked on Monday by local authorities who claimed it was a crime scene, eventually they were permitted onto the site, according to Deputy Middletown Fire Marshal Al Santostefano.

CSB is the agency which is investigating a similar incident at a ConAgra Foods facility in Garner, North Carolina last year (June 9, 2009.) CSB, in the wake of the ConAgra tragedy, issued a safety bulletin dealing with purging gas piping, restating long-accepted principles.  The bulletin “highlights five key lessons the agency recommends for improving safety in the workplace.”

“The purging of natural gas pipelines is a hazardous, but necessary, part of building a power plant,” says an energy safety specialist. “Fuel lines must be cleared of debris prior to start up. Standards must be met in this procedure; the process is relatively safe as long as stringent standards are followed.”

Evidence shows that there was proper air monitoring equipment on the Kleen Energy site. However, this alone does not provide a guarantee against problems. Instead, this, along with the proper grounding of piping and other equipment and the elimination of all potential ignition sources is the industry norm.

Yet, the question of whether these standards were followed remains open.

“Middletown's acting chief of police, Patrick McMahon, said police had ruled out any intentional act and were focusing on whether there was negligence.”

Speculation about the cause of the accident has focused on blow torches being used by welders on the site, and the possible use of space heaters, while the purge of the gas lines was taking place. Officials have said that the area where the “blow down” was being conducted may not have been properly ventilated, and the presence of ignition sources seems certain.

It should be noted that combustible gas, at a certain mixture ratio with air, is explosive with a static electrical charge, said an explosion investigator from the insurance industry familiar with the process.

Richard Simonelli is the President of Air America, a company dealing in the purchase and sale of engines like those on site at Kleen Energy. Mr. Simonelli, based in North Haven, Connecticut, is extremely familiar with the application of this technology.

He says, “The gas turbine engine has been around for nearly 100 years. It is extremely safe and has been used in commercial aircraft since the early 1950’s. It is also responsible for the generation of about 24% of all the electricity produced in the U.S. Everyone should take note that it appears this accident happened while preparing for connecting the plant to its natural gas fuel source, and not during the operation of the gas turbine. Hopefully law enforcement officials, with the help of industry engineers, will be able to determine the root cause of this horrific tragedy and prevent it from ever happening again. Our prayers go out to all concerned.”

There is little dispute about the fact that O&G Industries, the general contractor on the job, was pushing hard to complete its work, allowing the plant to open on time – even ahead of schedule. Short cuts likely taken in an effort to meet the plant’s deadline have had deadly consequences.

Allegations are running rampant following the accident on Sunday. “The concerns about pressure to get the job done and safety standards at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown were raised in interviews with The Associated Press on Wednesday, and add to a growing number of questions about work conditions at the site.”

The criminal investigation into the cause of the blast continues. “Officials say they're close to finding the point of origin of the explosion and hope to know more on the origin by the end of the day on Friday.”


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