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CSB animation details events leading up to 2016 fire at ExxonMobil Baton Rouge refinery

28 July 2017

On July 26, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released an animation describing events leading to the November 22, 2016, fire at the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, LA, which severely burned four workers. The fire erupted during maintenance activities in the refinery’s sulfuric acid alkylation unit. 

On the day of the incident, operators attempted to open a valve on spare isobutane pump in order to put the pump into service. The valve was manually operated by a handwheel, which connected to piece of equipment called a gearbox, that contained gears used to make it easier to open and close the valve.  The gearbox, however, was not working properly and the valve would not open. The operators, following accepted practice, then removed the gearbox and its support bracket from the valve.

Unknown to the operators, the valve was one of 3% of the total number of valves in the alkylation unit that were of an older design.  This 30 year old design used bolts to connect the gearbox and its support bracket to the valve and also secured a critical piece of pressure-containing equipment called the top-cap. When removed, the bolts leave the top-cap disconnected and the valve vulnerable to pressure.

With the bolts and gearbox removed, and the top-cap not secured, the operators attempted to open the valve using a pipe wrench, and the valve immediately failed and came apart. Pressurized isobutane escaped from the valve, forming a flammable white vapour cloud, which likely found an energised welding machine roughly 70 feet away from the initial release, and ignited. The resulting fire seriously injured one ExxonMobil employee and three contractors working in the area.

The newly-released 3-minute animation can be viewed on the CSB’s website and YouTube.

Earlier this month, ExxonMobil was fined $165,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over the incident. The regulator issued nine citations for safety lapses including inadequate training and equipment maintenance. Exxon is contesting the OSHA citations and fines.

The facility was faulted five years ago by the US Environmental Protection Agency for failing to address corrosion on pipes and valves and for inadequate shutdown and emergency procedures provided to workers.

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