By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
BUFFALO — DuPont allowed flammable vapors to go undetected inside a massive tank that exploded in 2010, killing the welder whose torch ignited the blast at the Town of Tonawanda facility, the federal agency responsible for investigating chemical accidents said Thursday.
While outlining specific steps for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont to take, U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the agency also was drafting broader industry-wide recommendations in response to at least 11 similar accidents over the last several years.
"Hot work accidents, which result from welding, cutting or grinding near a flammable atmosphere, occur at an alarming rate," Moure-Eraso said during a news conference in Buffalo, where the board was scheduled to vote on the final report and recommendations for the DuPont accident.
"This is not limited to one corporation. This has happened across all industries, small and large, and is a broader concern," he said. He declined to detail the proposals but said the agency was close to releasing them.
The DuPont explosion in Tonawanda was especially concerning, Moure-Eraso said, because it followed three January 2010 safety lapses at a Belle, W.Va., DuPont plant, including one in which a worker died and another was exposed to the toxic gas phosgene.
"A question naturally arose among our board members ... as to whether there might have been a safety culture decline at DuPont, so long considered to be an industry safety leader," he said.
The Tonawanda plant's manager, Ronald Lee, said the concerns were unwarranted.
"Safety continues to be our No. 1 priority, over production and any other performance parameter that's usually important in this industry," he said. "I've been with DuPont for 33 years and I have not seen the emphasis slack off around expectations of safety and adhering to standards. It is a core value and we advertise it and execute it as a core value."
Investigations determined that the Buffalo explosion happened after DuPont employees unfamiliar with the potential danger cleared contract welder Richard Folaron to begin maintenance work atop a 19-foot tall, 10,800-gallon steel slurry tank.
While engineers had checked for flammable gas above the outdoor tank prior to welding, workers never checked the air inside the tank because they didn't realize that flammable vinyl fluoride vapor could migrate from a second tank through an overflow line and accumulate.
Had the technicians tested the tank, "they would have known that any hot work presented a serious hazard," said chief investigator Johnnie Banks.
The explosion blew off the top of the tank, throwing Folaron to his death and burning a foreman who was watching nearby. Both men worked for Buffalo contractor Mollenberg-Betz.
The Chemical Safety Board recommended that DuPont require air monitoring inside tanks before and during work like welding, grinding and riveting and that vents and piping between tanks be closed off. It also said DuPont should regularly audit permitting processes to ensure that those issuing permits recognize and eliminate potential hazards.
Lee said many of the suggested changes reflect the company's findings and have already been implemented. Slurry tanks have been redesigned so that flammable substances cannot accumulate inside, he said, and the company now requires flammability checks in and outside of tanks before any hot work.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year cited DuPont and Mollenberg-Betz for 17 workplace safety violations related to the Buffalo accident. They included allowing welding to be conducted in an explosive atmosphere and not ensuring the tanks were free of flammables.
OSHA fined DuPont $61,500, the maximum under the law, for its role in the incident. Mollenberg was fines $55,400, as well.