Hancock plant blaze, two years later
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2010, Jeffrey Scott Fish, James Eugene Fish and Steven Swain were at work at AL Solutions, a small metals recycling plant along the Ohio River in New Cumberland.
Outside the Hancock County facility, witnesses heard a loud thud and metal hitting the floor. An explosion ripped through the building. Flames shot in all directions.
The two Fish brothers, 39 and 38 years old, died inside from heat and smoke inside the building. Swain, 27, made it out, but suffered burns over most of his body. He died four days later in a Pittsburgh hospital.
Two years later, AL Solutions quietly continues to fight federal workplace safety citations related to the incident. Lawyers for the family still file papers in their pursuit of a lawsuit against the company's Wall Street ownership.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration's Department of Labor continues to sit on rules that could help prevent combustible dust fires like the one that killed Swain and the Fish brothers.
And now, the federal Chemical Safety Board is on the verge of dropping its investigation into the AL Solutions fire. Agency officials cite budget and staffing constraints, and say completing the probe would likely not provide much new information about the dangers of combustible dust.
"It fits into the broader problem with the lack of dust regulation in the United States," said Daniel Horowitz, the board's managing director. "I'm not sure how much impact one additional case has on that overall picture."
For years, the CSB has been urging labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set standards to protect workers from combustible dust explosions and fires.
In a landmark 2006 report, the board identified 281 dust fires and explosions that killed 119 workers and injured 718 others between 1980 and 2006. Last year, the board said there had since been another 17 deaths in dust incidents -- including the three fatalities at AL Solutions. The Center for Public Integrity, which has investigated the issue extensively, reports that these numbers are likely significant understatements.
"The CSB has concluded that combustible dust explosions are a serious hazard in American industry, and that existing efforts inadequately address this hazard," the board said in its report, released six years ago last month.
Initially under the Obama administration, OSHA announced plans to take up the CSB's recommendations for a combustible dust standard. Earlier this year, OSHA moved the matter to its "long-term" agenda, and said it had no timetable for issuing even a draft rule.
"This means we are continuing to work on this project but we are not projecting a next action and date at this time," agency officials said earlier this year.
Agency officials did not respond to a request for an interview with OSHA chief David Michaels for this story.
'The highest quality product'
Located near Weirton in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle, the AL Solutions plant recycles titanium and zirconium. On its website, the firm touts "proprietary technology to recycle" these metals into "high quality alloying additions to aluminum."
"We are focused to deliver the highest quality product and service to our customers while also providing a valuable recycling outlet to the titanium and zirconium processing industries," the company says.
But the December 2010 incident wasn't the first time workers died at the New Cumberland facility.
Under the previous owners, a company called Jamegy Inc., a worker was killed in August 1995 by a hydrocarbon leak that caused a fireball, according to OSHA records. The company paid a $500 fine for a serious workplace safety violation.
Then, in July 2006, also under Jamegy's ownership, a worker died in a fire that occurred while he was cleaning excess zirconium scrap from the bottom of a mixing tank. Jamegy paid $5,100 in fines.
After the July 2006 death, federal safety inspectors didn't step foot in the New Cumberland facility again for more than four years -- until they responded to the December 2010 fire.
The day of the fire, Jeffrey "Scotty" Fish was known, was operating a blender that mixes titanium and zirconium into a homogenous material. Jimmy Fish and Steven Swain were running presses that compact the material into hockey puck-shaped disks.
Investigators still aren't sure what sparked the fire, and say they might never know. It could have been a spark-producing tool, or a lack of proper grounding and bonding of metal processing equipment, federal officials have said.
The facility had no instrumentation, so there's really no data on conditions leading up to the incident. All three workers who were inside the building at the time died, so there are no eyewitnesses to interview.
But federal investigators say they do know that AL Solutions had not installed an effective vacuum or other system to control dust in the building where the incident occurred, despite internal design documents that recommended limiting dust in the area.
"The company had taken to storing this metal dust inside this room, and previously they had been told to limit the amount of flammables in the room, and over time that had eroded until they were storing lots of barrels of this combustible dust in this room," said CSB investigator Mark Wingard.
OSHA investigators issued citations alleging one willful, 16 serious and one other-than-serious violation of federal safety rules, and the agency sought $154,000 in fines.
Among other things, OSHA said its inspectors found hundreds of barrels of flammable metals stored in unsafe conditions, such as near open flames and in un-vented containers.
OSHA labeled as a "willful" violation the plant's water-based sprinkler system. Agency inspectors said water would further fuel a metal dust fire, and that a sand/salt suppression system should have been used.
"When the water from the sprinkler system made contact with the metal fire, it created hydrogen in sufficient quality to result in an explosion and spreading of the existing fire throughout the production area," said OSHA Charleston area director Prentice Cline.
AL Solutions appealed, and in March the company and OSHA agreed to a partial settlement in which AL Solutions paid $28,000 in fines. The company is still challenging nearly $120,000 in penalties, including those for the most serious, willful violation.
'No complaints or referrals'
Despite the previous fatalities, OSHA hadn't put AL Solutions or the New Cumberland facility into a program aimed at tougher scrutiny of "severe violators" of workplace safety rules. Without that -- and without specific complaints from workers about conditions there -- the New Cumberland site was just another of the thousands of industrial workplaces across the country that goes years without being examined by a safety inspector.
"OSHA did not have any legal reason to do additional inspections," agency officials said last year. "There were no complaints or referrals that allowed us to go in."
Two weeks after the New Cumberland fire, OSHA launched an inspection at another AL Solutions facility in Washington, Mo. They cited the operation for six violations and fined AL Solutions more than $25,000. Six months later, in July 2011, OSHA settled the case for roughly $18,000 in fines.
In December 2006, AL Solutions bought the Jamegy facility in New Cumberland.
Mark Colantonio, a lawyer for the Fish family, alleges in court records that the transaction was through an "asset purchase agreement ... accomplished through highly leveraged loans which required AL Solutions to utilize most of its revenue to repay loans and leaving little or no funds for matters involving safety at the AL Solutions facility."
Colantonio says that AL Solutions is controlled by two private equity firms, Tremont Associates and BlackRock Keslo Capital. New York-based BlackRock Keslo has assets exceeding $1 billion and is publicly traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
In new court documents, Colantonio alleges that BlackRock Kelso and Tremont "were aware of the inherently and abnormally dangerous conditions associated with the processing and/or manufacturing operations" at AL Solutions and "failed to take appropriate action" to ensure the facility was run safely.
Jeffrey Holmstrand, a lawyer for BlackRock Kelso, declined comment except to say that his client "extends its sympathies to those affected by the accident at the "AL Solutions facility in December 2010." Officials from AL Solutions did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
As federal agencies go, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is a relatively small operation with a big job: To investigate industrial accidents that harm workers or the public, and recommend ways to avoid such incidents.
The CSB has no regulatory authority. It doesn't issue citations or levy fines. Instead, agency officials publish detailed and easy-to-understand reports that explain the causes of industrial accidents, and propose steps that companies, trade associations and other government agencies can take to avoid similar incidents in the future.
In West Virginia, the CSB has been praised by citizen groups and some elected officials for detailed reports on a 2008 propane explosion that killed four people at a Raleigh County convenience store, January 2011 blast that killed two workers at Bayer CropScience in Institute, and a series of September 2011 incidents that left one worker dead at the DuPont Co. plant in Belle.
As 2012 draws to a close, CSB officials are in the midst of their own probe of the April 2010 explosion and fire on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Among other ongoing cases, the CSB has launched a full investigation of the April fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., an incident that sent hundreds of area residents to hospitals. And like other government agencies, the CSB is facing the potential of serious budget and staffing cuts in coming years.
"It was in our minds a very serious and very tragic incident," the board's Horowitz said. "That's why we sent a team out there. What has happened in our case as time unfolded, is just a plethora of competing priorities ... all of which have huge pressures associated with them, and unfortunately for us, not a lot of resources to divvy up."
CSB reports frequently focus on looking at best practices that companies knew about -- or should have known about -- but didn't use that could have prevented serious industrial accidents.
But in a recent interview, board officials were unaware of plans by AL Solutions to build a new metals recycling facility in Hanover Township, Pa. Company officials have told local authorities the new plant is a "state-of-the-art" facility that will be "completely automated to eliminate the possibility" of another deadly explosion or fire, according to minutes from the local board of supervisors.
Horowitz said the design of the new facility might be something the board could look into, if at some point it determines it has the resources to resume work on the AL Solutions investigation and complete a formal report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.