HARTFORD, Conn.—Three days before the deadly explosion at a Connecticut natural gas power plant, a federal agency that investigates chemical accidents recommended urgent changes to national safety standards for clearing gas from pipes.
But even if those changes had been in place when workers were purging gas at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown on Feb. 7, killing five workers and injuring 21 others, it wouldn't have made a difference. Power plants are exempt from the standards.
Why the exemption exists is "one of the important questions" the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents, hopes to answer as it looks into the massive explosion, said Daniel Horowitz, a board spokesman.
Horowitz said it will take months to ferret out what voluntary or mandatory standards, if any, might have applied to the activities at the power plant that day.
The nation's codes and regulations are typically developed by groups like the National Fire Protection Association and, in most cases, adopted by state and local jurisdictions and then enforced by 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 pipeline safety since last year's deadly explosion at a ConAgra Slim Jim factory in his state, where significant amounts of natural gas had been purged indoors during the startup of a new water heater. Four workers were killed and 67 injured, three of them critically.
"Our workplace safety system basically relies on an outside entity to develop fire safety codes that are full of loopholes and enforced to varying degrees by a patchwork of agencies," Price said.
Price and U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., have urged the association to adopt the safety board's recommended changes to the fuel gas code, requiring gases that are being cleared from pipes to be vented to a safe location outdoors, away from personnel and ignition sources, and that combustible-gas detectors be used during purging operations to monitor gas levels.
The International Code Council, which also received the safety board's recommendations, released a statement following the Middletown explosion, saying the accident raised new concerns about the safe venting of natural gas lines.
The details of the purging at the Kleen Energy plant are a key focus for the board, which has investigated similar, devastating purging incidents in Michigan, California and Wyoming.
Don Holmstrom, the board's lead investigator, said even if the natural gas purging occurred outside at the Kleen Energy plant, "the safety message of our recommendation would carry a lot of important safety information in this case, even if it doesn't technically apply to power plants."
Connecticut officials have begun to review state safety codes in the wake of the explosion. A committee formed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell has been charged with examining whether all safety measures were followed and whether fire and building codes provisions were followed. Meanwhile, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said lawyers in his office are reviewing the oversight for power plants in Connecticut.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.