5 Chemical Plant Explosions, The Causes & How To Avoid Future Disasters.

By: | November 20th, 2013

APTOPIX Plant Explosion

An explosion at the Williams Companies Inc. plant in the Ascension Parish town of Geismar, La., Thursday, June 13, 2013. (AP/Ryan Meador)

In perhaps one of the most dramatic videos ever, the Henderson, Nevada rocket fuel plant, supplier to the US space shuttle program, explodes in 1986, two years after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. For its size and damage, it remains one of the largest ever chemical plant explosions. Following are five videos, first the Henderson, Nevada incident, followed by four that have occurred since.

Ongoing chemical plant explosions are devastating and point to the need for improved design and upgrading of facilities that use flammable substances. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (USCS) has completed investigations into scores of accidents like these 5 chemical plant explosions, suggesting that the use of smarter technology, already available, will help plants avoid adverse events in future. But that’s not all: advanced technology is well and good, but if people don’t follow basic chemical regulations and safety standards disasters will continue unabated.


1. Henderson, Nevada Rocket Fuel Plant (Dramatic Video, Must See: May, 1988)

Cause: The Henderson, Nevada rocket fuel (ammonium percolate) plant explosion in the above video registered 3.5 on the Richter scale and was felt 600 miles away. The explosion decimated the $100 million plant, which made rocket fuel for the US space shuttle program. At the time of the event, the space shuttle program was on hold due to the Challenger disaster two years earlier. But work at the Henderson plant continued apace and eventually the plant ran out of containers. In building new storage containers, welders are believed to have ignited existing drums of ammonium percolate. The site was filled with many sealed bins, some stacked on top of others, covering an area the size of a football field. Once the first explosion occurred, a chain reaction soon followed.



2. Geismar Plant Explosion, Louisiana (July, 2013)

Cause: In July 2013, a fire and explosion occurred at the Williams Olefins’ Geismar plant in Louisiana. A preliminary findings report was issued, suggesting the incident was the result of a vapor cloud which formed after a re-boiler ruptured. The vapor cloud was then ignited within seconds by an unknown heat or flame source. Two workers were killed and more than 100 were injured.



3. Diaper Manufacturing Facility, Japan (October 2012)

Cause: In September 2012, a chemical plant in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, killed a firefighter and injured dozens of people. Unbeknownst to many, baby diapers are made, in part, with a highly flammable resin, 320,000 tons of which was produced by the plant. The cause of the fire was an abnormal chemical reaction when firefighters trying to put out a relatively small fire in an acrylic acid tank used water instead of a chemical mixture that would have put the fire out. Instead, the fire spread quickly to nearby tanks, which became involved in a conflagration.



4. Chevron Oil Explosion – Richmond, California (August, 2013)

Cause: The Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California, on August 6, 2013, was triggered by an old pipe, more than 30 years old and likely from the early 1970’s. The pipe reportedly began leaking and leaked for two hours before it was discovered. Workers worked quickly to remove the insulation unit but did so while the pipe was still processing crude oil. This led to a spark and explosion in which five workers were treated for minor injuries. Huge plumes of burning chemicals filled the air and more than 15,000 local residents were treated at the hospital for inhalation of smoke and breathing problems.



5. Danlin Chemical Plant, Thomas, Oklahoma (September, 2013)

Cause: This is another chemical plant explosion. It occurred just a month ago. There has been no definitive word on what caused the blast and arson is still a being considered as a possible cause.


What Can Be Done to Prevent These Types of Disasters

One recent upgrade many plants are making is the inclusion of automatic shut off valves that are installed on the inlet or discharge piping of tanks. This technology employs thermal shut off valves that automatically close when they are heated above a preset temperature.These automatic shut off valves would have prevented the Haz Mat team in the Garland event from having to enter a burning plant to turn off valves and would have kept any flammable, combustible or toxic liquids or gasses from leaking or fueling the fire.


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BI-TORQ® Valve Automation designs and manufactures products intended to reduce facility risk and insurance costs while increasing safety for plant employees and surrounding communities. This safety product includes fire safe fusible link assemblies for emergency shutdown, spring return handles to eliminate the risk of leaving a critical valve in the wrong position and lock-out devices for both automated and manual valves.

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BI-TORQ safety products include the BI-TORQ Paladin series, which uses an API 607 fire safe automated ball valve and a CSA/UL approved electric actuator, making it ideal for fuel or chemical service. Its high quality design optimizes safety and reliability with full certifications available upon request.

Michael Cooney

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