US VCM plant fire is probed, Westlake says shouldn't be fined

11 July 2012 22:02  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Louisiana regulators are continuing to investigate a 22 March fire at a Westlake’s vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plant, an agency spokesperson said on Wednesday, after the company said it should not be fined.

Westlake has said that an unprecedented and unforeseeable confluence of events led to the fire at Geismar and that it should therefore not be fined by the state.

“Indeed, an incident such as occurred on March 22 has never been reported at any other VMC facility in the history of chemical operation in the United States," Westlake said in a 31 May letter it sent to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The fire occurred while Westlake was attempting to start up a VCM column at the plant, according to the letter.

During the start-up, chlorine, hydrochloric acid (HCl), VCM, ethylene dichloride (EDC) and reboiler start-up steam was present, Westlake said. These chemicals reacted exothermically, causing a tear in the column.

The tear exposed the chemicals to the air, causing them to ignite, Westlake said.

The company is investigating how the chemicals made their way into the VCM column during the start-up, it said in the 31 May letter.

In addition to bringing in its own team of investigators, the company hired the Illinois-based engineering firm Exponent Failure Analysis to do a full investigation of the incident.

The company said that the investigation showed that valves associated with HCl and chlorine levels were closed during the period from March 19, when the VMC column was shut down, to the day of the incident.

“However, the proper functioning of the valves is still under review,” the letter said.

In the meantime, the company said it has taken a number of steps to prevent the circumstances that led to the fire.

The company installed a new VCM column and associated piping and other equipment, it said.

“Although there is no indication that either the outside or control board operators failed to properly perform their jobs,” the company said, new start-up and shut-down checklists for the VCM unit were developed.

The DEQ is still conducting its investigation, and it does not know when it will be completed, said Jean Kelly, spokeswoman.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) is also investigating the fire.

Westlake did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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By: Ken Fountain

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