A federal investigation found that the fatal 2020 explosion at the Optima Belle plant in Belle, West Virginia, was caused in part by poor communication on process safety between the plant and a company that contracted its services.
An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) found that a lack of government oversight regarding reactive chemicals also contributed to the cause of the incident.
1 worker killed, $33M in property damage
The incident occurred as Optima Belle was producing a sanitizing compound for Clearon Corporation, a company that was using the plant’s toll manufacturing services. The toll agreement saw Optima Belle working on behalf of Clearon through a contractual agreement with a tolling broker, Richman Chemical Inc. (RCI).
A dryer at the plant that was being used to remove water from the Clearon chemical compound exploded, resulting in one worker fatality, a shelter-in-place order for the neighboring community and $33.1 million in property damage.
Chemical compound decomposition reaction caused blast
Optima Belle’s tolling contract saw the plant dehydrating an isocyanurate compound as part of the process Clearon wanted completed.
While the compound was dehydrating inside a pressure-rated rotary double cone dryer, it underwent a decomposition reaction. That reaction released gases that increased the dryer’s internal pressure above its design limit, causing it to explode and release toxic chlorine gas.
Metal debris and dryer fragments were launched off-site and within the facility, striking a methanol pipe that then caught fire, leading to significant property damage.
Companies failed to communicate regarding potential hazards
CSB investigators found the cause of the incident was the over-pressurization of the dryer due to the runaway chemical reaction. This occurred because “the facility did not adequately understand the potential for, analyze the hazards of, or detect and mitigate the self-accelerating reaction.”
Further, Clearon failed to “transmit sufficient process safety information to Optima Belle” as part of the tolling contract, according to the CSB. Tolling contracts aren’t unusual in the industry and the Center for Chemical Process Safety even provides industry guidance for safe tolling arrangements. The dryer explosion may have been prevented if the two companies had applied this guidance.
CSB: ‘OSHA, EPA need to close gap in chemical regulations’
The isocyanurate compound Optima Belle was working with can, and did, undergo self-accelerating decomposition when heated. That reaction can lead to an explosion, fire and toxic emission that can severely impact people, property and the environment.
However, many of these reactive chemicals aren’t regulated under OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP) rule. If the compound in question had been covered by the PSM standard or the RMP rule, risk mitigation and management systems would have been required. Those systems could have prevented this incident.
As a result, “the CSB is once again calling on OSHA and EPA to close a glaring gap in their chemical regulations and provide much-needed additional coverage of reactive chemicals.”