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Congress Addresses Industrial Natural Gas Dangers

Mon, 06/28/2010 - 4:40am
Stephanie Reitz, Associated Press Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The circumstances around the fatal Middletown power plant explosion will be the focus of separate hearings Monday by a congressional subcommittee and a federal safety advisory board.

Members of both groups are traveling to Connecticut from Washington, D.C., to get testimony from industry experts, emergency responders, regulators and others on the Feb. 7 blast at the Kleen Energy Systems plantand its aftermath.

Among the scheduled speakers is the widow of Colchester pipefitter Ron Crabb, who died in the explosion along with five fellow workers.

The blast occurred when something ignited 400,000 cubic feet of gas and air that had accumulated in tight quarters at the plant during a "gas blow" procedure. That industrial practice, common in power plants and factories, involves blowing high-pressure natural gas through pipes to clear debris.

The ignition source in the Middletown blast is still under investigation.

Middletown detectives and state police are investigating whether any people or businesses should face criminal charges in connection with the explosion and deaths.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which recommends policy to regulators, has criticized the gas blow procedure as inherently unsafe and wants companies to use safer alternatives.

Some of those possible alternatives are expected to be discussed when the board holds a hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Saint Clements Castle conference facility in Portland, across the river from the explosion site.

Earlier Monday, congressional members of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee have scheduled a separate hearing at 10 a.m. at Middletown City Hall.

Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano said he and city fire officials plan to discuss emergency preparedness measures and how they responded to the blast on that frigid Sunday morning.

As for specifics of what occurred and whether some industrial procedures are safer than others, he said, "I don't think I'm really in the position to talk about what might have been done differently. I think that's best left to the technical people."

But he added they are closely watching construction since it resumed at the power plant and say Kleen Energy's contractors are doing a much better job keeping track of specifically who is at the site at any given time.

The plant was near completion when the explosion occurred in February. Construction has resumed, but is not expected to be finished before it needs to renew its construction permit after Nov. 30 with the Connecticut Siting Council.

A Connecticut panel set up by Gov. M. Jodi Rell wants the council to add more safety restrictions on the permit before renewing or extending it this fall.

That group is also advising state regulators to consider stronger licensing and training rules on the gas blow procedure. If adopted, it would make Connecticut the first state to add that extra oversight.

Retired U.S. District Court Judge Alan Nevas, chairman of the Connecticut panel and another scheduled speaker at Monday morning's congressional subcommittee hearing, said they were surprised that people who perform the gas blow procedure don't need special licensing or oversight.

"This is a process that appears, to me at least, to have fallen between the cracks," Nevas said earlier this month when his panel adopted its recommendations. "We live in a very highly regulated society, and to find that this was not regulated was surprising."

Investigators also are reviewing whether workers were fatigued from long hours at the plant. State reviews of work records from contractors found a majority of workers were on the job for more than 40 hours a week, and that some worked as many as 90 hours per week.

Linda Agnew, acting commissioner of the state Department of Labor, said there are no laws limiting work hours at private workplaces. She said their review found minor violations in record-keeping, but nothing suggesting those violations could be blamed for the long work hours or blast.

Several other industrial accidents involving natural gas have occurred in recent years, including one that killed four people last year at the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner, N.C., and another in 1999 at a Ford Motor Co. power plant in Dearborn, Mich., that killed six.

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