Agency to release findings from 2010 fatal accident

NEW CUMBERLAND – A federal agency charged with investigating industrial accidents says it will release its findings about an explosion that killed three workers at New Cumberland metal recycler AL Solutions Inc. in 2010.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board will convene a hearing in Charleston at noon July 16 to hear a staff report, including findings and recommendations, on the accident, the agency said. The hearing, to be held at the Four Points Sheraton, 600 Kanawha Blvd. E, also will have time for public comments.

While the board does not issue fines or citations, it does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The case stems from a December 2010 explosion at the South Chester Street plant that killed three AL Solutions employees – brothers James Eugene Fish, 38, and Jeffrey Scott Fish, 39, both of New Cumberland, and Steven Swain, 27, of Weirton. The Fish brothers were pronounced dead at the scene, and Swain succumbed to injuries he suffered in the blast four days later in a Pittsburgh hospital.

The accident triggered investigations by the EPA, OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board – as well as wrongful death lawsuits by the Fish brothers’ estates and the family of Steven Swain. The lawsuits against AL Solutions and two out-of-state parent companies are still pending in Hancock County Circuit Court.

The EPA and OSHA cases were settled earlier this year when AL Solutions agreed to pay a civil penalty of $100,000 to the EPA and a $97,000 penalty to the U.S. Department of Labor. As part of the settlement, the company also agreed to process or dispose of approximately 10,000 drums, or 2.4 million pounds, of titanium and zirconium being stored at its New Cumberland and Weirton facilities by December.

AL Solutions, whose corporate offices remain in New Cumberland but whose operations mainly are in Burgettstown, Pa., and Washington, Mo., recycles titanium and zirconium raw materials for use as alloying additives by aluminum producers. The materials are formed into Ty-Gem and Zy-Gem compacts, or pucks, using a proprietary process, according to the company’s website.

On Dec. 9, 2010, the Fish brothers and Steven Swain were working with zirconium powder in the plant when it ignited and exploded. The explosion occurred when “titanium and zirconium powder reacted, causing the release of hydrogen gas which ignited and caused zirconium and titanium fines, dust and swarf to combust with great force,” according to a separate complaint filed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Both substances are considered “highly flammable and explosive” by the EPA, which noted in the settlement documents that they are “easily ignited under certain conditions, specifically when in dust form.”

In October 2010, about six weeks before the fatal accident, and in subsequent inspections, the state DEP focused on what it considers the illegal storage of hazardous waste at the New Cumberland and Weirton facilities. The raw material is stored on-site, in 55-gallon drums, under water or oil to minimize the chance of spontaneous combustion, according to the DEP.

AL Solutions contends that the material on-site is not hazardous waste but “valuable feedstock” that is awaiting processing and recycling at its other facilities, according to a memorandum filed by Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., of Pittsburgh.

DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said all the storage violations will be resolved through the EPA/OSHA settlement.

“There was a disagreement over the question of whether the materials were hazardous waste; however, it was resolved because (AL Solutions) agreed to remove all wastes by December 2014,” Aluise said.

The AL Solutions accident was one of 57 combustible dust incidents identified by the Chemical Safety Board between 2009 and 2013 in which 26 people died and 129 were injured. Previously, from 1980 to 2005, the board identified 281 such incidents in which 119 workers died and 718 were injured, according the board’s 2006 “Combustible Dust Hazard Study.”

In that report, triggered by three dust explosions that killed 14 workers in 2003, the board called on OSHA to promulgate new rules “to control the risk of dust explosions in general industry.” To date, those rules have not been developed.

“Despite the seriousness of the combustible dust problem in general industry, OSHA has no comprehensive standard to require employers in general industry to implement dust explosion prevention and mitigation,” the 2006 report said.

The board study said that dust explosions occur when solid organic materials, many metals and some nonmetallic inorganic materials are finely divided and dispersed in sufficient concentrations.

“Combustible dusts can be intentionally manufactured powders, such as corn starch or aluminum powder coatings, or may be generated by handling and processing solid combustible materials such as wood or plastic pellets,” the report said.

In addition to fuel, an ignition source and oxygen, a dust explosion also requires the presence of dust suspension and dust confinement, the report said. “Suspended dust burns more rapidly, and confinement allows for pressure buildup,” the study said.

The July 16 meeting is intended to provide the public with information on how the AL Solutions incident happened and how future incidents can be prevented, the agency said.

All findings by the Chemical Safety Board investigation team are considered preliminary until they are approved by a vote of the board, the agency said.