Lawsuit: Formosa's Negligence Caused Propylene Blast

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, victims of a propylene explosion and fire at Formosa Plastics Corp.'s Point Comfort, Texas, plastic resins and petrochemical plant contend that Formosa knew of hazards at the plant and acted with "conscious indifference to the rights, safety or welfare of others."

The victims allege, among other things, that Formosa failed to provide workers with appropriate safety equipment, failed to implement and enforce an adequate safety program, violated OSHA standards and allowed vehicles to travel through the plant with no specific routes, restrictions or regard to protruding piping filled with volatile gases.

"The lack of safety was a constant weight on the minds of Formosa employees and their families," asserted Wes Christian, who is the lead attorney for the victims. The suit was filed in the County Court of Law in Calhoun County, Texas.

The accident occurred on Oct. 6, 2005, in the Formosa plant's Olefins II unit, which, according to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), converts either natural gas liquids or naphtha into products such as propylene and ethylene.

According CSB, the accident began when a vehicle – a forklift towing a trailer loaded with cylinders of breathing air used in maintenance – snagged a valve, pulling it out of the system. According to the agency, this caused the release of a large volume of propylene – the lawsuit refers to it as a "rapidly expanding, flammable vapor cloud" – which then ignited, creating a large fire.

The initial explosion knocked several operators to the ground and burned two men, one seriously, CSB said. According to the agency, 14 workers sustained minor injuries evacuating the complex.

Within minutes of the initial explosion, local officials ordered a shelter-in-place for the Point Comfort community and closed Highway 35, which runs adjacent to the Formosa complex and through Point Comfort. The fire burned for 5 days.

Attorney: 1,000 Plaintiffs Expected

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include injured workers and bystanders as well as spouses and family members of those workers and bystanders. Some of the family members are included in the lawsuit seeking damages for their mental pain and suffering or loss of consortium, Christian said, while a few of the workers' family members were injured while waiting near the plant for their loved ones at the time of the blast.

According to Christian, more injured workers likely will be added to the lawsuit or included in a separate lawsuit.

Also, Christian said, approximately 950 residents of Point Comfort, Texas, and Port Lavaca, Texas, likely will be filing a lawsuit against Formosa Plastics in the next month or two. According to Christian, for several weeks after the initial accident, flares at the Formosa plant burned off toxic waste that resulted from the explosion and fire. That dispersed "fumes and residue" that hung over the two communities, forcing some residents to leave their homes. The fumes and residue also killed plants, sullied cars and caused some residents to experience respiratory problems and a few to become seriously ill.

In addition to Formosa Plastics Corp. Texas, the lawsuit names two other defendants: HP Services LP, which, Christian noted, is a subcontractor that employed the "vast majority" of the workers who were injured; and Fernando Rivero, who allegedly was driving the forklift that triggered the accident.

The lawsuit contends that Rivero's acts of negligence included "entering an area of the plant when such entry could not be made with safety, failure to keep a proper lookout [and] failure to maintain an assured clear distance between the trailer and the valve in question."

Formosa Blast Prompted CSB Recommendations, Video

CSB's investigation of the accident concluded that Formosa's Olefins II unit was not equipped with automated shutdown valves that could have stopped the propylene flow and limited the size of the fire. According to CSB, Formosa operators were unable to reach manual valves to stop the release due to the presence of the growing vapor cloud.

The CSB investigation noted that the valve hit by the trailer was unguarded and vulnerable to being hit by vehicles.

The investigation also noted that some steel supports were not fireproofed and, consequently, collapsed. According to CSB, this caused the failure of pipes designed to carry flammable hydrocarbons to the unit's flare system, where they could be safely burned in the atmosphere. Without this safety system in place, CSB said, pressurized flammable gases continued to feed the fire, which burned for 5 days.

The lawsuit contends that Formosa "knew or should have known … that there was inadequate protection of the process piping within the unit and further that an impact of such unprotected piping would have catastrophic results."

"Protection form impact by concrete or metal columns – a simple and inexpensive prophylactic used in the protection of other equipment within the plant – was discarded" by Formosa, the lawsuit alleges.

CSB's investigation also determined that flame-resistant clothing was not required for all employee activities within the Olefins II unit, where there were large quantities of flammable liquids and gases.

As a result of its investigation, CSB issued several formal safety recommendations. Among them, the agency urged Formosa's Point Comfort plant to revise its policies and procedures for analyzing hazards to include vehicle impact dangers, fireproofing of structural steel and mechanisms for controlling chemical releases such as remotely controlled isolation valves. CSB also recommended that Formosa provide fire-resistant clothing to workers exposed to the dangers of flash fires.

A video depicting the events leading to the accident is available, free of charge, on the agency's Web site.

OSHA Fined Formosa $148,000 for Accident

As a result of the accident at Formosa's Point Comfort plant, OSHA earlier this year issued one willful and 13 serious citations for Formosa's alleged failure to protect its employees. The agency proposed $148,000 in fines.

According to the agency, the willful citation was issued for Formosa's failure to provide workers with flame-resistant clothing for protection against flash fire hazards.

"OSHA has inspected Formosa Plastics numerous times for many of the same violations," said John Giefer, OSHA's area director in Corpus Christi, Texas. "If the company had followed OSHA standards, it is possible that the injuries sustained by these workers could have been avoided."

A call seeking comment from Livingston, N.J.-based Formosa Plastics Corp. USA – the parent company of Formosa Plastics Corp. Texas – was not returned.

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