Three days before the deadly explosion ata Connecticut natural gas power plant, a federal agency thatinvestigates chemical accidents recommended urgent changes tonational safety standards for clearing gas from pipes.
But even if those changes had been in place when workers werepurging gas at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown on Feb.7, killing five workers and injuring 21 others, it wouldn't havemade a difference. Power plants are exempt from the standards.
Lorraine Carli, vice president of the National Fire ProtectionAssociation, a nonprofit group that develops, publishes anddisseminates more than 300 consensus codes and standards to helpminimize fires and other risks, said the National Fuel Gas Codedoesn't apply to power plants because of the high pressure levelsused at the facilities.
Why the exemption exists is "one of the important questions"the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency thatinvestigates chemical accidents, hopes to answer as it looks intothe massive explosion, said Daniel Horowitz, a board spokesman.
Horowitz said it will take months to ferret out what voluntaryor mandatory standards, if any, might have applied to theactivities at the power plant that day.
The nation's codes and regulations are typically developed bygroups like the National Fire Protection Association and, in mostcases, adopted by state and local jurisdictions and then enforcedby the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The current system has come under some criticism from Congress.
U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., has advocated stronger pipelinesafety since last year's deadly explosion at a ConAgra Slim Jimfactory in his state, where significant amounts of natural gas hadbeen purged indoors during the startup of a new water heater. Fourworkers were killed and 67 injured, three of them critically.
"Our workplace safety system basically relies on an outsideentity to develop fire safety codes that are full of loopholes andenforced to varying degrees by a patchwork of agencies," Pricesaid.
Price and U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., have urged theassociation to adopt the safety board's recommended changes to thefuel gas code, requiring gases that are being cleared from pipes tobe vented to a safe location outdoors, away from personnel andignition sources, and that combustible-gas detectors be used duringpurging operations to monitor gas levels.
The International Code Council, which also received the safetyboard's recommendations, released a statement following theMiddletown explosion, saying the accident raised new concerns aboutthe safe venting of natural gas lines.
The details of the purging at the Kleen Energy plant are a keyfocus for the board, which has investigated similar, devastatingpurging incidents in Michigan, California and Wyoming.
Don Holmstrom, the board's lead investigator, said even if thenatural gas purging occurred outside at the Kleen Energy plant,"the safety message of our recommendation would carry a lot ofimportant safety information in this case, even if it doesn'ttechnically apply to power plants."
Connecticut officials have begun to review state safety codes inthe wake of the explosion. A committee formed by Gov. M. Jodi Rellhas been charged with examining whether all safety measures werefollowed and whether fire and building codes provisions werefollowed. Meanwhile, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal saidlawyers in his office are reviewing the oversight for power plantsin Connecticut.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly in Washington, D.C.,contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times