News  Gas purging causes power plant explosion

Company investigated for serious violations of safety standards

On February 7, the Kleen Energy power plant exploded in Middletown, Connecticut, killing five and injuring at least 12. The explosion was one of the worst industrial disasters in the U.S. in recent years.

Employees there had been working around the clock to complete the plant, which was slated to be the largest in New England and among the largest nationwide. The explosion was so powerful that it was felt 20 miles away.

Edward Badamo, chief of the Middletown fire department’s south district, was one of the first responders to reach the site of the explosion. “I wasn’t prepared for what I found when I showed up on scene,” he said, adding that he had spent 12 to 14 hours a day at the site since the explosion. “I leave my house, I go to the site, I come home from the site. I haven’t had any socialization off the site since the explosion.”

At the time of the explosion, plant operators had been performing a process known as “gas purging,” or the clearing of air from main gas lines. Purging is highly dangerous, and led to the explosion of a ConAgra plant in North Carolina in June 2009.

On February 4, three days before the Middletown explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released urgent recommendations to change the codes that govern gas purging after months of investigation at the North Carolina plant.

CSB public affairs director Daniel Horowitz said that the Middletown explosion was one of the “largest [the CSB had] ever dealt with.” Horowitz declined to comment on the details of the investigation, while maintaining that investigators would be at the site for at least weeks to come.

The site is also being investigated by a team from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. A central focus for investigators involves hearing from workers, some of whom have claimed that they had been under pressure to finish the project, working as many as 80 hours a week in the days before the explosion. Workers have also reported smelling gas as little as an hour before the explosion.

“We will look at all aspects of workplace safety,” said OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald, while noting that he was not aware of any standards that regulate hours worked at the plant.

The Hartford Courant has reported that no safety officials were present during the purging of the gas lines at the plant, the construction of which had been contracted to O&G Industries, which is also a minority shareholder.

O&G’s director of human resources, Dan Carey, declined to comment on the safety proceedures surrounding the purging, saying, “It’s really inappropriate for us to respond to individual allegations.”

A review of OSHA’s records on O&G Industries revealed that the company paid a $6,300 fine in January 2008 for “serious” and “other than serious” workplace safety violations.

Since the explosion, Kleen Energy Systems has outsourced its media relations to a New York firm, which declined to comment.