CSB: Iowa Plant Fire Sparked by Solvent Spray

According to preliminary findings made by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) on a chemical plant explosion and fire at the Barton Solvents plant in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 29, the explosion occurred when an “as-yet unidentified source” ignited a solvent that was being loaded into a tank.

CSB lead investigator Randy McClure said that the worker who was filling the tank with the ethyl acetate solvent had momentarily turned away when he heard a “popping sound,” which witnesses said could have been from the pressure relief device. The worker then saw a fireball erupting from the tank.

According to McClure, the pressure from the eruption caused the filling nozzle to be knocked out of the tank, spraying the solvent all over the room and onto the worker. His clothing caught fire, but he was able to quickly remove his clothing and escaped with superficial injuries, McClure said.

A second operator attempted to battle the fire, but when the fire extinguisher ran out, he shut off all power and the plant was successfully evacuated.

News reports point out that the flames were so overwhelming that it took firefighters more than five hours to get close enough to the flames to start extinguishing them. As a result, a large portion of the facility was completely destroyed.

“We will conduct tests to determine if the solvent could have produced enough static electricity to be the ignition source,” McClure said. “We will also evaluate the design and maintenance of equipment in the area to determine its suitability for use in a flammable environment.”

This is the second time in less than four months that a Barton Solvents chemical facility has exploded and caught fire. On July 17, 2007, explosions and fire erupted at the Barton Solvents facility in Valley Center, Kan., north of Wichita. The incident led to the evacuation of thousands of residents and resulted in projectile damage offsite, as well as extensive damage to the facility.

CSB is still investigating the Valley Center incident.

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