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Chemical tank dangers were well known

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On July 17, 2001, boilermaker Jeffrey Davis and his co-workers were repairing a catwalk on a sulfuric acid storage tank at the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Delaware City, Del.

Somehow, a spark ignited flammable vapors from the tank. The tank separated from its floor, instantaneously spilling its contents. Surround tanks also broke open, and a huge fire erupted.

Davis, 50, was killed. His body was never recovered. Eight other workers were injured. More than 100,000 gallons of sulfuric acid flowed into the Delaware River.

Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found "significant deficiencies" in Motiva's program to ensure its storage tanks were safe. The tank had a history of leaks that weren't really ever fixed. Extensive corrosion in numerous Motiva tanks went uncorrected, the CSB found.

Motiva wasn't the first chemical storage tank disaster the CSB has had to investigate, and it wouldn't be the last.

As the agency begins its inquiry of the Jan. 9 leak of the chemical Crude MCHM from the Freedom Industries site along the Elk River, a review of CSB records shows that above-ground storage tank dangers have been well known for years.

Spills of toxic and hazardous materials from chemical storage tanks are nothing new. Last year alone, the National Response Center counted nearly 2,200 such incidents across the country.

The CSB has investigated a number of the more serious storage tank incidents and found a variety of major safety problems and regulatory gaps:

Some examples:

• On May 1, 2002, a huge fire destroyed the Third Coast Industries automotive-fluids blending and packaging plant southeast of Houston. The blaze began late at night, when no workers were there, and burned for more than 24 hours, consuming 1.2 million gallons of anti-freeze, motor oil, brake fluid and other materials.

CSB investigators found that the Third Coast facility lacked fire detection and suppression equipment and was not designed to contain the spread of even a small fire. The plant did have a containment dike around the tank farm, but the walls were broken in places and ineffective, the CSB found.

• On Nov. 12, 2008, a 2-million-gallon liquid-fertilizer storage tank collapsed at the Allied Terminal distribution facility in Chesapeake, Va. Two workers were critically injured, and two members of the public who tried to help the injured workers were treated for exposure to ammonia vapors.

CSB investigators found spotty coverage of fertilizer storage tanks, noting that federal rules are aimed specifically at oil tanks, not tanks used for other hazardous materials.

• On Oct. 23, 2009, a large vapor cloud ignited at the Caribbean Petroleum facility near San Juan, Puerto Rico. The blast damaged homes and businesses more than a mile from the facility. The CSB found gaps in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's program to manage the risks of such incidents.

"CSB investigations have shown widespread gaps in the oversight of these types of facilities," said Daniel Horowitz, the CSB's managing director. "So in our investigation at Freedom Industries, we will be looking for how to close those gaps, because no community should have to suffer what West Virginia is now experiencing."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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