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Dallas Explosion Plant Missing Safety Inspections, Sprinkler System

Jul 26, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Southwest Industrial Gases storage facility that exploded in Dallas yesterday had not been inspected in over five years.  That revelation was made by Dallas Fire Marshall Debbie Carlin at a news briefing late yesterday.   Still, Carlin maintained that the lack of inspections was not a contributing factor to yesterday’s explosion.  The Southwest Industrial Gases plant also was not outfitted with a sprinkler system because such systems were not required when the facility was built.

Dallas city ordinances require that any business that stores volatile agents be inspected every year.  The Southwest Industrial Gases facility, which stores canisters of propane and acetylene gases, would appear to fit within that category.  In fact, while the fire still raged, a spokesperson for the Dallas Fire Department did tell a local TV station that the plant had been inspected every year.  But at the news conference later in the day, Carlin admitted that the statement was not accurate. But Carlin said that such inspections check only for material storage and the presence of open flames.  Neither of those situations was the cause of Wednesday’s blast. Rather, a malfunctioning connection tube used to fill tanks with acetylene sparked the explosion.  

The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board sent a 5-member team to Dallas to investigate the accident.  The investigators will take a look at the plant and its equipment, focusing on possible ignition sources, storage problems or human errors that could have contributed to the explosion.  The board’s investigation could take as much as a year.

Yesterday’s explosion began on one of the facility’s loading docks and quickly spread to surrounding gas canisters.  The canisters, filled with oxygen, helium and acetylene, began exploding, sending fireballs through the air.  Witnesses a mile away reported flaming shrapnel falling from the sky, and a half-mile area around Southwest Industrial Gases was evacuated.  The explosions were so ferocious, that at first, fire crews could not get to the scene.

A representative from the Dallas County Health Department said at yesterday’s briefing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was already monitoring air quality in the city, and reports should be ready soon.  The health department spokesperson said that it believes that the fire burned hot enough to dissipate any dangerous fumes; however residents should be aware of the symptoms of acetylene exposure.  Those include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, dullness and headache.  While the health department said only a handful of people lived in the evacuated area, more than 12,000 people reside within one mile of the plant.  Tens of thousands of commuters also pass the site everyday on several of the city’s busiest highways.

At least one Dallas City Councilwoman said she wants the city to rethink the way it handles inspections of facilities like Southwest Industrial Gases.  Pauline Medrano, who represents the area around the plant, told The Dallas Morning News that the city should do more rigorous inspections of hazardous storage facilities that, like Southwest Industrial Gases, are in close proximity to downtown Dallas and major highways.


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