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Phillips facing fine for fatal plant blast

By RUTH RENDON
The Houston Chronicle
September 22, 2000
Web posted at: 11:18 AM EDT (1518 GMT)

HOUSTON, Texas (The Houston Chronicle) -- Citing poor training, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Thursday proposed fining Phillips Chemical Co. $2.5 million in connection with a March 27 explosion that killed one Pasadena plant worker and injured 69 others.

Smoke rises from the plant after the March 27 explosion.
Smoke rises from the plant after the March 27 explosion.  

The proposed fine, the largest in recent years, followed a six-month investigation that resulted in allegations of 50 violations of safety standards at the 630-acre complex. The plant at 1400 Jefferson has 850 workers.

"The primary violations were the failure to properly train workers in the hazards associated with the reaction of the butadiene chemical. We found 30 instances of that where they failed to train their operators and supervisors," OSHA regional administrator John B. Miles Jr. said, specifically pointing to the K-resin unit, where the blast occurred.

"They had indications that things were going wrong in this particular unit, and the supervisors and operators did not recognize that because they had not been trained," he said.

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Phillips Petroleum disagreed with the conclusions, expressing disappointment that OSHA "chose to issue citations rather than pursue a mutually satisfactory resolution of the issues."

The March explosion claimed the life of supervisor Rodney Gott, 45, of Deer Park, a 19-year Phillips employee.

"We have cited similar violations again and again at this plant; yet tragedies continue to occur," OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress said. "What is really needed here is a full reassessment of worker safety and health in all areas of the plant, significantly improved training for employees and a firm commitment from plant and corporate management to make safety an ongoing high priority."

OSHA blamed the blast on a chemical reaction in a 12,000-gallon tank of butadiene in the K-resin section of the complex.

K-resin is a trade name for clear plastic sold and used for such items as drinking cups, food containers and medical equipment.

Butadiene is a highly reactive hydrocarbon.

"The tank had been out of service for cleaning and had no pressure or temperature gauges that could have alerted workers in the control room to the impending hazard," OSHA said.

The plant, which as of July 1 became known as Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. because of a joint venture between the companies, has 15 days to contest the findings. The company said it would appeal.

Craig Glidden, general counsel for Chevron Phillips, said the company would vigorously contest the citations.

"Some of the same things we found there this year, we found last year. We are concerned," Miles said.

OSHA records show that it has inspected the Pasadena complex 46 times since 1974, including four inspections last year, three of those after explosions.

Chevron Phillips on Wednesday announced a comprehensive safety program, which Glidden said targets OSHA's concerns.

Glidden also said the K-resin section is being independently analyzed to find ways to improve safety. The company also intends to appoint a safety "czar" to be at the plant daily.

Jim Lefton, international representative with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International union, applauded Thursday's fine.

"I wish it could have been more. Our bottom line is that we want this company to quit killing people and quit hurting people," he said. "Our No. 1 concern was to try to find out what the company will do for the employees who were burned in the explosion. They need to compensate the families beyond what workers compensation insurance requires."

OSHA's proposed fine included $2.1 million for 30 alleged willful violations for failure to train plant operators and $280,000 for four willful violations of process safety management and lockout/tagout standards.

After a June 1999 blast that killed two, Phillips Petroleum was fined $204,000 for 13 safety and health violations.

Some of the violations cited by OSHA in that blast still are in litigation, said Ray Skinner, director of the OSHA Houston South Area Office.

The two men killed in the 1999 blast were working on a contract basis at the plant.

In October 1989, 23 people were killed in an explosion at the Phillips complex. The company was fined $6.3 million by OSHA in 1990 but settled for $4 million.

Chronicle reporters L.M. Sixel and Jenalia Moreno contributed to this story.



RELATED STORY:
Explosion rocks chemical plant in Houston area

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Phillips Petroleum Company

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