Wednesday, October 8, 2008

CSB Reports on Little General Store Propane Explosion

Almost a month ago I noted (see: “CSB to Hold Public Meeting about Propane Incident”) that the Chemical Safety Board was about ready to release their report on the 2007 propane explosion at the Little General Store in Ghent, WV. Well, in covering the DHS appropriations business and worrying about the inability of Congress to get its collective act together on the financial bailout, I forgot to report on that report. As with most of the incidents that CSB investigates, this one is kind of scary.




On the morning of January 30th, 2007 a rookie technician from a local propane dealer was preparing to switch the Little General Store outside of Ghent, WV over to a 500-gal propane tank provided by his company, replacing a ten-year old tank from another dealer. The old tank had been placed right behind the store and under the roof overhang, a violation of local, state and federal codes and guidelines.


According to the CSB report, while preparing to conduct a tank-to-tank transfer of the remaining propane in the old tank, the technician removed a cap from the liquid transfer valve. It was only after the cap was removed that he realized that the valve was stuck in the open position and the propane began flowing, uncontrollably, out of the valve.


Because the tank was under the roof overhang and there was a bathroom vent nearby, propane fumes began to enter the store. About 30 minutes later, with a volunteer fire company captain, an emergency medical technician and two propane technicians near the propane cloud, an unidentified energy source ignited the gas cloud and a fuel air explosion resulted. Four people were killed and six were injured. The store was completely destroyed as was the ambulance and several parked cars. Each of the propane tanks were blown more than 50-ft from their installed locations.


The Root Cause


As with any serious incident there is seldom a singe cause that, by itself was the cause of an incident. This incident was no different. The CSB found three causes (pg 53) for the incident:


  • “The Ferrellgas inspection and audit program did not identify the tank location as a hazard. Consequently, the tank remained against the building for more than 10 years.
  • “Appalachian Heating did not formally train the junior technician, and on the day of the incident he was working alone.
  • “Emergency responders were not trained to recognize the need for immediate evacuation during liquid propane releases.

Emergency Response Problems


Along with these three ‘causes’ there were 18 additional ‘findings’ that contributed to the severity of incident. They ranged from the failure of the tank withdrawal valve to the failure of the gas company to keep the proper distance between propane storage tanks and buildings. The most disturbing to me are the six findings related to the lack of or ineffective emergency response training for propane incidents. Those six findings (pages 52-2) were:


  • “Propane service technicians commonly do not receive emergency response training.
  • “Thepropane industry’s primary training curriculum (the Certified Employee Training Program) consists of procedures and materials for performing routine (non-emergency) tasks only.
  • “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s and National Fire Protection Association’s propane standards require training but do not include curricula, practical exercises, emergency actions, or knowledge evaluation tools.
  • “Firefighters in West Virginia are required to attend a minimum of four hours of hazardous materials emergency response training as part of their initial training sequence but refresher training is not required. The responding Ghent Volunteer Fire Department captain last attended a hazardous materials response course in 1998.
  • “Propane safety and emergency training is voluntary for fire department personnel in West Virginia.
  • “None of the responders from the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department had specific training relating to propane emergencies.”

The CSB reports that a “propane emergency significant enough for fire department response is reported nearly everyday in the United States. Only gasoline and natural gas are involved in more hazardous materials emergencies” (page 52). This should mean that fire department personnel would receive extensive and repetitive. The finding that it was not so in this case, nor is it generally required, is quite surprising.


Applying Lessons Learned


Any high-risk chemical facility that has propane on site should review the recommendations included in the CSB report. While none of the recommendations was directed at the owners of the Little General Store, owners of high-risk chemical facilities have a higher degree of responsibility for results of incidents on their site. They should investigate to see if the same recommendations needto be applied in their state and community.


Additionally, this situation points out that making assumptions about the training and effectiveness of emergency response personnel could be very dangerous. Many large, high-risk facilities have their own emergency response personnel (fire and EMTs) on site. Those facilities most likely have response teams that are well trained on the characteristics of the hazardous materials stored and used on that site.


Facilities that do not have the fortune (pun intended) to have their own, on-site emergency response personnel still need to be pro-active in insuring that the first responders likely to serve their facility in an emergency have a good understanding of the characteristics of all of the hazardous materials on site. Federal regulations require that a listing of on-site hazmat be provided to local authorities. This certainly does not go far enough. At the very least facilities should provide first responders with MSDS and any safety guides that the facility uses to train it’s own personnel. Facilities should also consider inviting first responders to any supplier-provided, Responsible Care® safety training given to facility personnel. Perhaps this should be added to the Responsible Care standards.


Facility management owes it to their employees, the surrounding community and the facility owners to insure that they take all reasonable actions to minimize the effects of chemical accidents and incidents. One key to this responsibility is to ensure that all emergency response personnel have enough information to safely respond to and control the situation.

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