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Illinois petrochemical plant explosion injures two

16 December 2013

A blast caused a fire at the Blue Island Phenol plant in Alsip, Illinois, on December 13. The two people, believed to be workers at the plant, suffered burns and were transferred to a nearby hospital. Plant Manager Bill Moffatt said they were in a stable condition. The plant employs about 100, and about 20 people were inside the plant when the explosion took place, according to Moffat.

Huge plumes of thick black smoke could be seen billowing from the plant, and about 150 people in buildings west of the plant were evacuated.

Moffat said the explosion and fire followed a chemical release in the factory’s cumene unit, which manufactures phenol and acetone. The process to produce the chemicals runs continuously, and the two reactors used to store the chemicals were not damaged in the incident.

A decontamination unit was at the scene, and a hazmat team was monitoring the air, Alsip Fire Chief Tom Styczynski told the Southtown Star, adding that he did not believe the fire and resulting fumes posed any threat to nearby residents.

One building at the plant, a storage facility, was destroyed and others were damaged, Styczynski said. He said three chemicals used at the plant — propylene, propane and benzene — were “involved in the ignition” of the fire, although the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Only about 10 firefighters doused the flames inside the factory with water, with most of the fire suppression being done by sprinklers and unmanned firehoses that were installed in the plant following a fire there in 2008, the chief said.

He said a pool of “residual oil” in the plant ignited at one point, causing dark clouds of smoke to billow in the sky. He estimated the fire itself was contained to a space of about 100 by 100 feet.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the explosion. Scott Allen, a spokesman for the agency, said the plant has been cited by OSHA for violations multiple times, including a violation for occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in a laboratory after an inspection in February. The plant received a $1,000 fine.

In 2008, the company reached an agreement with the Illinois Attorney General’s office following a fire at the facility, according to a statement from the AG’s office at the time.
Under that agreement, the company agreed to hire a licensed engineering firm to analyse the cause of the accident and make needed repairs before it could resume production. The company also was required to assess soil and groundwater contamination caused by the runoff from the water used to extinguish the fire.

The company said the fire erupted after a storm caused a power outage at the plant. Without power, cooling and circulation systems in the phenol unit failed, causing the temperature and pressure inside the phenol unit’s oxidizers to rise, starting a chemical fire.

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