Sustained Outrage

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The Kleen Energy plant is seen in this aerial photo after an explosion in Middletown, Conn., Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

At least five workers were killed and a dozen others injured this morning when an explosion rocked the site of a power plant that was under construction in Connecticut, raising more questions about the practice of gas-line purging — and issue already under close scrutiny by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Only Thursday, CSB members voted to issue urgent safety recommendations about this practice, after initially rejecting its own staff’s suggestions that it do so.

According to The New York Times’ account:

Al Santostefano, the Middletown deputy fire marshal, said the explosion, at about 11:25 a.,m., occurred as workers at the nearly completed Kleen Energy Systems generating plant were trying to suck natural gas out of the plant’s pipes, a procedure known as a “blow down.” He said the explosion and the resulting fire was contained to a single building known as the Power Block.

The plant, on the Connecticut River, is somewhat remote from Middletown’s residential core and from its best known institution, Wesleyan University, perhaps two miles away. Yet so powerful was the blast that Mr. Santostefano heard the explosion from his home five miles away.

“I felt a tremor,” he said. “I thought to myself something somewhere has happened and then my pager went off.

Similar details are in The Associated Press story published by USA Today and in The Hartford Courtant.

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The Kleen Energy plant is seen in this aerial photo after an explosion in Middletown, Conn., Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

CSB investigators issued their urgent recommendations as part of their ongoing review of last June’s explosion and ammonia release that killed 3 workers at a ConAgra Foods Slim Jim facility in North Carolina. The agency has also examined a series of other incidents involving gas purging:

A 1999 explosion at a Ford power plant in Dearborn, Michigan, killing six, injuring 38, and causing a $1 billion property loss; a 2008 explosion at a Hilton Hotel under construction in San Diego, California that injured fourteen people; a 2005 school explosion in Porterville, California, burning two plumbers; and an explosion at a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 2007 severely burning two plumbers.

Daniel Horowitz, a CSB spokesman, said an agency team was being dispatched to the Connecticut site to examine the incident:

As you know, the CSB is very concerned about the issue of gas purging and recently issued urgent recommendations to the National Fire Protection Association, the American Gas Association, and the International Code Council on the subject. I would emphasize, however, that we do not have any first-hand information right now on the Middletown explosion, apart from media statements suggesting that purging was involved.

I would anticipate that the team will be closing examining what happened in Middletown to see if there are any similarities. In any event, the explosion in Connecticut is clearly a very serious matter that would likely warrant an investigation, regardless of the specific cause.

WTNH-TV has continuing coverage including this video: