Engineering News

'Significant' issues in Valero probe--US Chem Bd
Thu Nov 10, 2005 02:47 PM ET

HOUSTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) - "Significant safety issues" are involved in the deaths of two contract workers at Valero Energy Corp.'s Delaware City, Delaware, refinery last week, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said on Thursday.

The board will continue its probe into the deaths on Saturday of two men who apparently died of nitrogen asphyxiation while preparing a refinery unit for overhaul, said CSB member John Bresland in a statement.

Valero, which assumed ownership of the refinery on Sept. 1 from Premcor Inc., said it was "cooperating fully" with the CSB's investigation as well as conducting a probe internally as well as organizing an investigation with the refinery workers' union.

"Despite this tragic incident, we remain committed to making this refinery one of the safest in the nation," said spokeswoman Mary Rose Brown.

"Of the 149 refineries in the United States, Valero currently has 9 of the 19 Star Sites in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program. We are committed to making our newly acquired Delaware City refinery a Star Site too," Brown said.

Matrix Service Co., which is overseeing the Delaware refinery overhaul and employed the two workers, did not have an immediate comment about the CSB statement.

Based on CSB's preliminary investigation, the two men were supposed to reconnect a pipe to a vessel in the refinery's hydrocracker unit, Bresland said.

"It appears that one of the two contractor employees likely became disoriented, passed out and fell into the vessel after he breathed nitrogen near the manway opening at the top of the vessel," he said.

The second man, seeing his colleague fall, entered the vessel in an attempt to help him, he said.

"Both men died quickly from nitrogen asphyxiation," Bresland said.

The vessel had been filled with nitrogen because it uses a fine powder catalyst in processing that is sensitive to moisture. The nitrogen protects the catalyst from moisture.

Bresland said this is the second deadly accident at the refinery. In 2001, an employee was killed in the explosion of a sulfuric acid storage tank.

At that time the 175,000 barrel-per-day refinery was owned by Motiva Enterprises LLC, a joint venture between Saud Refining Inc. and Shell Oil Co.

Motiva sold the refinery to Premcor in May 2004.

Bresland said the 2001 incident involved the use of safety permits during hazardous operations with flammable materials.

"We are concerned about the fatalities involved and the history of incidents at the facility," he said. "We are also concerned about employee awareness of the hazards of nitrogen."

Brown said Valero wants to know "why and how these individuals entered the reactor without authorization and despite the red warning tape that surrounded the vessel's entry."

Between 1992 and 2002, 80 people were killed and 50 people were injured in 85 incidents involving nitrogen at U.S. chemical plants, Bresland said.

Source: Reuters

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