The federal Chemical Safety Board has ruled that while an employee's actions caused an April 2004 explosion that killed five workers at a PVC plant in Illiopolis, Ill., Formosa Plastics Corp. USA did not do enough to prevent the human error.
In a March 6 news release, Washington-based CSB made the same claim against Borden Chemicals and Plastics LP, which sold the plant to Formosa in 2002.
``This accident occurred because the companies involved did not look closely enough at the potential for catastrophic consequences resulting from human error,'' CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt said in the release, which accompanied CSB's final report.
In the release, CSB officials said a Formosa employee tried to open the wrong valve after washing out a reactor with a water blaster the morning of the accident. When the incorrect valve did not open, the employee used an air hose to override the pressure in the valve. That process was to be used only in emergency situations, CSB investigators said.
When the valve did open, highly flammable vinyl chloride monomer - a PVC feedstock - sprayed onto the floor, filling the area with vapor. The released VCM exploded shortly after the leak.
Rob Thibault, a spokesman for Livingston, N.J.-based Formosa, said findings from his firm's internal investigation of the accident were similar to those of CSB. Formosa has closed the Illiopolis plant, which employed 135 at the time of the blast.
``Formosa Plastics and the CSB have the same goal - to make the workplace as safe as possible,'' Thibault said in a March 6 phone interview.
A similar incident occurred at the plant two months before the accident, but Formosa did not act quickly enough to install additional controls, investigators said. Formosa also accidentally released 8,000 pounds of VCM into the atmosphere from its PVC plant in Baton Rouge, La., in 2003.
In October 2005, a Formosa employee struck a liquid propylene line with a forklift at the firm's plastics and chemicals plant in Point Comfort, Texas. That accident caused a fire that burned for five days and injured 12 people.
CSB does not issue citations or fines. The March 6 report recommends that Formosa review the design and operation of all its U.S. PVC facilities, which are in Baton Rouge; Point Comfort; and Delaware City, Del.
Thibault said most of CSB's recommendations also are similar to those made by a third-party engineering firm Formosa hired shortly after the Illiopolis accident. The firm reviewed all of the Formosa's U.S. plastics and chemicals production sites. In addition to making PVC, Formosa is a major producer of polyethylene, polypropylene and other specialty plastics and chemicals.
Most of the changes recommended to Formosa by the engineering firm are in place, while the remainder are being completed, Thibault said. He estimates Formosa has spent more than $10 million to improve its safety systems since the time of the Illiopolis blast.
``We didn't wait for a government report to come out,'' Thibault said. ``We stepped up right away to do what we had to do to make our plants safer.''
Improvements include installing more isolation valves, changing interlock systems and bringing in more guardrails and concrete barriers to protect equipment and piping.
Thibault added that after the February 2004 VCM leak in Illiopolis, Formosa already was redesigning its safety bypass system there, but the work wasn't completed in time to prevent the second, more serious incident.
Another change that might result from the Illiopolis accident, according to Thibault, is a review of ``best practices'' as defined by the U.S. chemical industry.
``If you look at our safety record, it's as good or better than that of the chemical industry as a whole,'' he said. ``In 2004, we were operating according to the industry's best practices. In hindsight, best practices need to be improved and strengthened, not just for Formosa.''
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Formosa $300,000 for the Illiopolis accident and $148,000 for the 2005 Point Comfort incident.
As for the future of the Illiopolis site, most of the 42-year-old plant was destroyed in the blast. Formosa is working with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site. Long-term, Thibault said, Formosa might use Illiopolis as a warehousing location because of its proximity to Midwest customers.