A lawyer for residents whose homes were damaged in the massive explosion in Danvers three years ago says that a Kentucky-based chemical company delivered a tanker of chemicals to an ink and paint factory, contributing to an inferno that destroyed or damaged nearly 100 homes and businesses.
Lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, in a public meeting today with Danvers town officials, said a worker for Ashland Inc., based in Covington, Ky., also participated in filling up the 2,000 cqgallon mixing tank that overheated inside the CAI/Arnel factory, causing an explosion that nearly flattened the Danversport neighborhood.
"We believe this was part of a routine practice," Schlichtmann said of the employee's actions. "That makes it particularly egregious. It was an explosion waiting to happen."
In a statement, Ashland said it has bears no responsibility for the Nov. 22, 2006 explosion, one of the state's worst industrial accidents. "Ashland has great sympathy for the people in Danversport," the company said in a statement. "However, as independent investigations have already determined, Ashland played no role in that event."
Separate investigations by the state Fire Marshal's office and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that the explosion was an accident. Chemical vapors that built up inside the plant ignited with an unknown ignition source, causing the explosion, investigators concluded last year.
But an investigation by the Danversport Trust, a nonprofit formed to work out a settlement with CAI, found that a worker for Ashland assisted in unloading and distributing 6,000 gallons of alcohols and heptane into three underground storage tanks, and into the mixing tank, that were not properly permitted, according to Schlichtmann.
"We certainly think it is absolutely unlawful for a chemical supplier to leave off a potentially explosive quantity of chemicals to an unlicensed facility," he said.
The state Department of Fire Services last year fined CAI/Arnel a total of $400 for not having the proper permits to store flammable liquids and chemicals on the factory site. The mixing tank and underground tanks were included in the fines, according to the department.
But a department spokeswoman said that the responsibility for obtaining proper permits lies with the company storing the chemicals. "The onous is on the people storing and using the chemicals," spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth said.
John Vorderbrueggen, CSB's lead investigator, said he the board knew about the chemical delivery, but was not previously aware of any allegation that an Ashland worker may have performed any work inside the factory. He added that the board thinks the chemicals already inside the plant were responsible for the detonation, and the delivery was not a factor because the chemicals were put into underground storage tanks on the grounds. "We were aware they took a delivery that day. ... I doubt that the delivery of that chemical made any difference that day,'' he said in a telephone interview. "They had the chemicals on site.''
The trust recently accepted a $7 million settlement from CAI to avoid litigation. But with almost $30 million in total losses, for property damage and emotional suffering, the settlement did not come close to compensating residents for losses not covered by insurance. Many residents received less than $1,000 in settlement checks mailed last month.
Susan Tropeano, a leader of a neighborhood group called SAFE, said residents think more government oversight is needed of chemical transportation. "These companies all deliver large quantities of explosives," she said.
The transport of hazardous materials, including flammable materials, now is governed by federal interstate commerce laws. Companies that distribute chemicals must permitted and follow a safety plan, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the US Department of Transportation.
Schlichtmann would not say to what extent Ashland could be liable for the explosion, but said the trust has presented its findings to the company.
"We're calling on them to sit down and own up to their responsibility and make this right,'' he said. "We believe the evidence is very strong that they contributed to this explosion."
Although a legal complaint has not beenfiled against the company, Ashland said it is already preparing its defense. "Ashland fulfilled all of its duties and responsibilities and played no role in this tragic situation," the company said in a statment. "We intend to vigorously defend against these meritless claims at the proper time and place and we expect to be fully vindicated."
John Ellement of the Globe Staff conributed to this story.
Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com
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