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US metal company required to make large investment in technology following fatal blast

23 December 2013

The US Environmental Protection Agency announced on December 19 that AL Solutions, a West Virginia-based metal recycling company, had agreed to implement extensive safeguards to prevent future accidental releases of hazardous chemicals from its facilities, resolving alleged Clean Air Act violations (CAA) stemming from an explosion at the company’s New Cumberland facility that killed three people. 

“Since the explosion, EPA and OSHA have been working together to coordinate our investigations and share information,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin. “Our combined efforts have resulted in settlements that provide a comprehensive framework for the company to build cutting-edge safeguards into its processes in order to protect people and the environment.”

In December 2010, three employees who had been handling zirconium powder at the company’s former plant in New Cumberland died following an explosion which may have been caused by an accidental release of the chemical. Debris from the explosion, which destroyed the production area of the facility, was scattered into the yards of local residents. Earlier this year, the company opened a new, automated facility in Burgettstown, Pa. which includes modern technology to safeguard employees and reduce exposure to hazardous metallic dust.

The EPA estimates that the company will spend approximately $7.8 million to implement extensive measures to ensure compliance with environmental requirements, assess the potential hazards associated with existing and future operations, and take measures to prevent accidental releases and minimize the consequences of releases that may occur. In consultation with EPA, the company has already completed significant portions of the work required by the settlement and a prior administrative order.

Among other requirements, AL Solutions must use advanced monitoring technology, including hydrogen monitoring and infrared cameras, to assess hazardous chemical storage areas to prevent fires and explosions. They must also process or dispose of approximately 10,000 drums of titanium and zirconium, or 2.4 million pounds, being stored at facilities in New Cumberland and Weirton, W. Va., both of which are overburdened communities, by December 2014 to reduce the risk of fire and explosion.

The company will also pay a $100,000 civil penalty to resolve the alleged CAA violations documented during EPA inspections of the New Cumberland, W. Va. and Washington, Mo. facilities following the explosion. At the Washington facility, inspectors noted evidence of previous fires, burned insulation, fire-affected wiring, and titanium sludge covering large areas of the floor.

EPA’s complaint alleged that AL Solutions failed to conduct adequate hazard analyses, and failed to design and maintain the facilities to take account of the extremely hazardous substances there by providing safeguards consistent with industry codes and standards relating to these substances. The State of West Virginia is expected to file a separate complaint soon alleging that the company violated various provisions related to the unlawful storage of waste at the New Cumberland facility.

The settlement will resolve those separate allegations. In a related action, AL Solutions recently agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Labor a total of $97,000 to resolve alleged violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA). The OSHA settlement, which is subject to final approval by an Administrative Law Judge, requires expanded abatement measures that are consistent with the safeguards in EPA’s settlement to provide ongoing worker safety protection at the company’s four facilities. These measures require adequate fire detection systems, process hazard analyses for production areas, regular safety and health inspections, and restrictions on stockpiling combustible materials.

Since the explosion, EPA and OSHA have coordinated their investigations and shared information, which has resulted in settlements designed to protect workers, communities, and the environment. The EPA’s proposed consent decree filed in federal district court in the Northern District of West Virginia is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.

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