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Flammable Leak Likely Cause of Chemical Plant Explosion

The leak of a flammable vapor of a product produced only once or twice a year at a North Carolina chemical plant is the likely culprit in a powerful explosion in late January that killed one worker and injured a dozen others, according to federal investigators.

Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, who have been in Morganton, N.C., since the accident occurred, said at a press conference March 1 that employees from the Synthron Inc. chemical manufacturing plant were producing a paint additive when the vapor escaped. The process uses flammable chemicals including butyl acrylate and solvents, and generates a significant amounts of heat.

Jim Lay, lead investigator with the CSB, said that an increase in pressure in the reactor could have led to the release of the vapor. He said investigators still are not sure why this happened and that it is the focus of the investigation.

"An important focus of our investigation will be to understand what was different about the conditions on Jan. 31 that could have caused the major accident that occurred," said Lay.

In addition to causing injuries and the death of a worker, the Synthron explosion also destroyed the manufacturing facility, heavily damaged nearby office structures, shattered windows in residences and even caused significant damage to a church across the road.

State labor officials said their investigation has been delayed because the plant is on the verge of collapse. John Bresland, a member of the chemical safety board, said that delays in investigations because of safety concerns are not unusual, since broken pipes, mangled beams and possible chemical contamination make the site dangerous.

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