Wagner's Point gets apology from plant In a report to the state, company says accident didn't endanger area

October 17, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The manager of Condea Vista chemical plant, which was rocked by an explosion Tuesday night, issued a public apology yesterday, even as the company sent state investigators a report maintaining that the accident did not pose a danger to nearby residents.

Residents in the 270-person Wagner's Point neighborhood a few hundred yards from the plant immediately criticized the report, noting myriad ailments among neighbors as evidence they were adversely affected.

In a company statement, plant manager Jim Pavao said, "I understand the alarm, fear and concern that everyone who experienced this event must have felt and may still be feeling. I want to express my deepest apologies."

The two-page report, addressed to the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the "explosion was probably caused by the ignition of hydrogen" inside or just outside a reactor, known at the plant as R-2.

Hydrogen is common in reactors at the plant, which has been closed indefinitely. But David L. Mahler, Condea Vista's environmental manager, said the explanation of how and why the hydrogen caught fire remains a mystery.

In his statement, Pavao added: "We are working with federal and state regulators to get at the root cause of the accident. That investigation is expected to take several weeks to complete."

Even with that caveat, the preliminary report draws one strong conclusion: tests for toxins indicate that no toxic gases, specifically benzene, left the facility after the explosion, an eruption so fierce it was felt five miles away.

The company statement said: "Although people were alarmed by the sound of the explosion, the fire and the large cloud of smoke, they were not threatened by exposure to toxic chemicals."

But Wagner's Point residents said dozens of their neighbors had complained of eye and throat irritation in the minutes after the accident, and that three residents were taken to hospitals.

Help wanted for buyout

Residents have asked the government and industry to buy their homes because of pollution and a string of suspicious cancer cases. Debbie Hindla, a leader of the buyout effort, said that, instead of apologizing, Condea Vista should contribute financially to the neighborhood's relocation.

"I don't believe the report," said Betty Lefkowitz, who lives on Leo Street, and whose 3-year-old grandson was badly shaken by the explosion. "There had to be something in the air that made people sick. How can the company say nothing bad got out?"

For their part, government investigators reserved judgment on the report. Susan Woods, director of communications for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said: "We got the report, and it's under review."

A copy of the document, given to The Sun by Condea Vista officials, offers a succinct description of the plant, the accident and its aftermath.

Products of the plant

European-owned Condea Vista makes a detergent ingredient called linear alkylbenzene, or LAB. LAB is made by combining paraffin (refined kerosene) and benzene (a known human carcinogen) with the help of an aluminum catalyst in three reactors. One of those is R-2.

The report said Condea Vista had shut down Oct. 8 for "routine maintenance." Workers were changing piping on the R-2 reactor, which required emptying the reactor by flushing it with paraffin. Shortly before the accident, the reactor contained 100 to 500 pounds of aluminum and aluminum chloride, 200 to 900 pounds of paraffin, 25 to 125 pounds of hydrogen, 1,200 gallons of water, and 5 to 20 pounds of benzene, a remnant from the process.

At 6: 10 p.m., pressure and temperature in R-2 unexpectedly began to rise. Ten minutes later, R-2 exploded, producing a shock wave and fireball that burned four employees and caused a fifth, contract worker Earl McDavid, to fall 30 feet from a vTC catwalk. McDavid broke his back.

Back from retirement

From his bed at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, McDavid, 58, a steamfitter and born-again Christian, said he had retired last winter, but grew bored and returned to work this week.

Tuesday was his second day back. McDavid credited Jesus Christ and his hard hat with keeping him conscious after the fall, when he crawled out of the fire to safety.

The fire burned for more than an hour, the report said, turning the hydrogen into water, and burning through the aluminum. The benzene in R-2 burned off quickly, before it could leave the plant, the report said.

The paraffin fed the fire, creating a massive cloud of black smoke visible for miles.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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