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DuPont process cited in fatal 2010 blast

Procedures followed at the time of a November 2010 explosion that killed a contract welder at the DuPont plant in the Town of Tonawanda were cited as contributing causes Thursday as an independent federal agency released a report on its investigation.

A draft report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board was presented during a morning news conference in downtown Buffalo. The CSB is a nonregulatory agency whose members are appointed by the president.

Many of the board's findings echo those of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which announced last May that it was fining DuPont and Mollenberg-Betz, the contractor whose two employees were involved in the incident, for multiple, serious safety violations.

Richard J. Folaron, 57, of South Wales, died instantly and William R. Freeburg, now 53, of Angola, was injured in the Nov. 9, 2010, explosion at the DuPont Yerkes plant on River Road, near Sheridan Drive. They were working on a 10,800-gallon storage tank used to hold slurry involved in the production of photovoltaic panels; the tank in question had been emptied weeks before.

Flammable vinyl fluoride vapor flowed, undetected, into the tank from interconnected tanks that were in service. The vapor ignited while Folaron was welding on top of the tank.

"Had technicians tested Tank 1 for a flammable atmosphere, they would have known that any hot work [spark-producing activities] presented a serious hazard," said Johnnie A. Banks, who led the investigation.

The CSB investigates serious chemical accidents, but doesn't issue citations or fines. It makes safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies such as OSHA.

"In its final report, the CSB is recommending that DuPont revise its corporate policies [to] require atmospheric monitoring inside tanks before and during any hot work," said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso. Another recommendation is to require all process piping, including vent lines on tanks, be positively isolated before authorizing any hot work.

The CSB chairman noted that the board had issued a safety bulletin in March 2010 -- several months before the DuPont explosion -- about accidents that occurred during hot work on tanks.

"All 11 of the accidents were similar to the accident at DuPont," Moure-Eraso said. "In each case, monitoring for a flammable atmosphere was either done improperly, or not performed at all."

Changes already have been made, a DuPont official said Thursday.

"We conducted an exhaustive investigation of the incident and we cooperated fully with the Chemical Safety Board throughout its investigation," said plant manager Ronald A. Lee. "Many of the agency's recommendations are closely aligned with the results of our own investigation and have been implemented."

Following its six-month probe, OSHA levied almost $117,000 in fines for 17 violations: DuPont was fined $61,500 for nine violations and Mollenberg-Betz $55,440 for eight violations of workplace safety standards.

Unlike OSHA, the CSB's report didn't cite actions by the contractor, Mollenberg-Betz.

"We don't address finding fault with individual actions. We try to find where systemic failures occurred," Banks said.

The CSB's report, and other materials related to the DuPont investigation, can be found at www.csb.gov.

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com