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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.