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OSHA imposes $16.6m fine over Conn. power plant blast

6 workers were killed in February

By Stephanie Reitz
Associated Press / August 6, 2010

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HARTFORD — The nation’s top workplace safety agency imposed $16.6 million in fines yesterday against companies involved in a power plant blast that killed six workers and injured 50 others.

The fines, the third-highest imposed for a single accident, stem from 371 alleged safety and workplace violations at the Kleen Energy Systems natural gas power plant in Middletown.

The companies “blatantly disregarded well known and accepted industry procedures and their own safety guidelines,’’ the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in announcing the fines.

“They simply and tragically refused to use common sense,’’ Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said. “The deaths and injuries could have been prevented, had the companies placed safety first.’’

The facility, which was under construction, exploded Feb. 7 when something ignited natural gas in the air. The natural gas had accumulated in tight quarters during a “gas blow,’’ in which high-pressure gas is forced through pipes to clean them.

The ignition source has not been identified, but welders were working nearby, and gas and diesel heaters were left running during the gas blow on that chilly Sunday, defying safety rules and common sense, OSHA officials said.

The largest proposed fine levied in the case is $8.3 million against O&G Industries of Torrington, the general contractor. Keystone Construction and Maintenance of Rowley, which oversaw the gas blow, was fined almost $6.7 million.

Sixteen other companies also face potential fines, ranging from $7,000 against several small contractors to more than $896,000 against Bluewater Energy Solutions of Acworth, Ga., which was supposed to oversee the safety and training for the gas blow.

Messages left yesterday for representatives of O&G Industries and Bluewater Energy Solutions were not immediately returned. Keystone said in a statement that it had just received the OSHA citations and may comment after reviewing them in more depth.

The companies have 15 days to pay or contest the fines.

The fines represent the third-largest total imposed by OSHA for a single accident; the first two were both against oil giant BP for a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers at a Texas refinery.

The large companies involved in the project were rushing to complete the plant, OSHA officials said, and some stood to collect millions of dollars in bonuses for an early finish.

The rush was not specifically pinpointed as the cause of the ill-fated gas blow, but Solis said some victims’ family members raised concerns about it when she talked with them.

“They were alluding to the fact that [the workers] were exhausted and that they were overworked, and there wasn’t a good explanation except to hurry up with the work,’’ Solis said. “In some instances, I was led to believe that safety may not have been the highest priority.’’

OSHA is also sending warning letters about the dangers of gas blows to companies working on the 125 gas-fired turbine power plants currently planned or under construction, OSHA head David Michaels said.

He said OSHA cannot immediately ban the procedure, because it would take years to change federal standards that govern those workplace practices. An emergency ban could only last for six months and only if OSHA could show that a moratorium is the only option.

Gas blows can be performed safely if done correctly, Michaels said, though OSHA hopes the warning letter and publicity about fines in the Kleen Energy case motivate other power plant builders to use safer pipe-cleaning procedures.

Workplace safety groups say air or nitrogen would be safer than natural gas.

Middletown detectives and State Police are investigating whether any people or businesses should face criminal charges in the explosion and deaths. Attorneys for 10 injured and deceased workers have also filed civil lawsuits.

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