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Cooling & Relief Systems Caused Fla. Plant Blast

Tue, 09/15/2009 - 11:57am

RON WORD Associated Press Writer — September 16, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The T2 Laboratories explosion that killed four people and injured 32 in 2007 was likely caused by an inadequate cooling system and a relief system that couldn't contain an out-of-control chemical reaction, a federal agency reported Tuesday.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board also said although the plant was owned by a chemical engineer and chemist, neither had an educational background in reactive chemicals and both "were unaware of the potential for a runaway accident," board Chairman John Bresland said.

"We hope our findings once again call attention to the need for companies to be aware of how to control reactive chemical hazards," Bresland said at a news conference.

Plant employees were making a gasoline additive when a chemical reaction went out of control, raising the pressure inside the reactor and causing a massive explosion and chemical fire.

The powerful blast — which investigators said had the power of 1,400 pounds of TNT — on Dec. 19, 2007, killed four T2 employees, including one of its owners, and destroyed the company. Debris was found up to a mile away. Four nearby businesses were damaged beyond repair.

"This was a tragic, unnecessary loss of life," Bresland said at a later public meeting.

The plant's office manager, Bill Retzer, 66, of Jacksonville, survived with only a cut on his head. He was in a trailer at the edge of the property.

"We lost friends and that does hurt, and there were serious injuries. One man lost both legs," said Retzer.

Retzer said he thought the board did a good job, but noted a lot of its report was conjecture, because no one knows exactly what happened.

The problem started about 1:23 p.m., when the plant's owners were called because the plant had a cooling problem.

Upon returning, one of the owners went to the control room to help and the other went to find a mechanic. At 1:33 p.m., the reactor burst and its contents exploded, killing the owner and process operator, who were in the control room, and two outside operators who were leaving the reactor area.

"The CSB determined insufficient cooling to be the only credible cause of the accident, which is consistent with witness statements that the process operator reported a cooling problem shortly before the explosion," the report said.

T2 had also experienced overheating problems at the lab before the explosion.

"Although the owner/engineer told employees he thought a fire would occur, none of the T2 employees appreciated the potential for a catastrophic explosion," the report stated.

T2 never reopened after the explosion, and last month papers were filed to legally dissolve the company.

Bresland and other members of the board met with survivors and relatives Tuesday, giving them the same briefing they gave reporters and the public. He described the event as "very solemn."

One of the founders, Robert Scott Gallagher, was killed in the explosion. His partner, Marion "Mike" Wyatt, 50, died Sept. 1.

Bresland said the safety board is asking the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology to add chemical reactive hazard awareness to chemical engineering course work for students pursuing bachelor's degrees.

Agency spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said the safety board's investigation sought ways to prevent similar accidents. The agency lacks power to write citations or order fines, but it can make recommendations to improve safety.

A CSB study found 167 serious reactive incidents in the United States between January 1980 and June 2001. They resulted in 108 deaths, hundreds of injuries and high public impacts.

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