Puerto Rico Explosion Investigation Points To Defective Fuel MonitorNov 20, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) announced that a malfunctioning fuel monitoring system probably led to the massive explosion at a Caribbean Petroleum Corporation facility near San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The October 23 blast endangered the lives of thousands and ignited an immense blaze that fed on jet fuel, bunker fuel, and gasoline stored at the facility. Plumes of thick, black smoke filled the air with hazardous contaminants, including carbon monoxide and sulfur; winds spread the toxins throughout San Juan and adjacent municipalities, exposing thousands and displacing over 1,500 people. The situation was no better for those forced to remain inside with windows closed to keep out the toxins.
It seems that one of the depot’s 40 tanks was accidentally overfilled with gasoline from a ship docked in the San Juan harbor, reported Reuters. The error appeared to have been a result of a faulty monitoring system, which led to the explosion, said CSB officials. Depot employees did not notice the problem because the depot’s computerized level monitoring system was not working properly, explained Reuters. Gasoline spilled from the tank, evaporated, spread across the facility, and resulted in a 2,000-foot vapor cloud, said Reuters. Once the vapor reached an “ignition source,” the blast occurred and the flames followed, added Reuters.
The Puerto Rico Seismic Network reported that the blast produced a shock wave equivalent to a 2.8 magnitude earthquake and was so strong that it tore up a highway, and shattered windows on nearby homes. Twenty-one of 40 tanks at the facility used to store jet fuel, bunker fuel, and gasoline were destroyed or damaged by the fire. There were no reported fatalities, but two people were injured, and many evacuees suffered from respiratory illnesses. The explosion decimated homes and businesses and the toll on environmental damage is still being assessed, said Reuters. Firefighters worked to stop the fire for three days, reported Reuters. It may be years before the health consequences become completely apparent.
"The filling of a tank without a functioning monitoring system is the type of activity the CSB will be examining very closely," Investigator-in-Charge Jeffrey Wanko said, quoted Reuters. "The CSB will conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation of this accident. Our team will uncover exactly what events led to an explosion of this magnitude. Our goal is to determine not only what happened, but why it happened," CSB board member William Wright said, quoted Reuters.
In 2000, a Caribbean Petroleum refinery was shut down as well as a tank farm where gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and crude oil were stored. Also, we recently wrote that Caribbean Petroleum has a spotty environmental record. According to The Miami Herald, over the last ten years, Caribbean Petroleum Corp. has been cited for major environmental violations that have cost it a total of $1.3 million in penalties and fines. And, according to a prior Miami Herald report, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had not inspected the facility since 2000. Since 1990, the National Response Center, an entity that reports oil, chemical, radiological, and biological spills, recorded at least 25 oil spills at Caribbean Petroleum facilities.
Despite its long record of environmental violations involving penalties and fines for leaking hazardous waste in the water, air and soil, Caribbean Petroleum has been allowed to run for nearly a decade without safety inspections or an emergency community disaster plan, in violation of federal law, the Herald said.