Authorities are searching for answers after two workers were injured in two explosions and a subsequent fire at a phenol plant in a Chicago suburb.
The chemical plant, Blue Island Phenol LLC, located in Blue Island, IL, was also the site of a 2008 chemical release and fire, which injured one worker and temporarily closed the plant.
The explosion occurred about 11:30 a.m. CT Friday (Dec. 13). About 40 fire departments responded and extinguished the blaze by 2:20 p.m., aided by a high-powered sprinkler system, which was installed after the 2008 fire, according to the Southtown Star. A decontamination unit and hazmat team were also on the scene.
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A chemical release resulted in two explosions and a fire that injured two workers at the Blue Island Phenol plant on Friday.
The two injured workers were taken to a local hospital, where they were reported later in stable condition.
Blast Destroys Building
The plant's manager, Bill Moffatt, said he had been on his way to investigate a chemical release when the explosion happened.
"I was in the office building, and it shook the office building," Moffatt told the Southtown Star. "We have a suspended ceiling, and some the tiles fell out of the ceiling."
Moffatt said the explosion and fire had followed a chemical release in the cumene unit, which manufactures phenol and acetone. The two reactors used to store the chemicals were not damaged, but one storage building at the plant was destroyed and other buildings were damaged.
He said that the plant employed about 100 people, and that 20 people were inside when the explosion happened, although not all were employees.
Alsip Fire Chief Tom Styczynski told several media outlets that propylene, propane and benzene had been "involved in the ignition," but the exact cause of the fire was under investigation.
Styczynski also said that a pool of "residual oil" caught fire at one point, sending clouds of dark smoke billowing into the air.
He said that the location of the fire was hard to reach, so the fire department used unmanned devices to monitor the fire, ABC 7 reported.
"We kept everybody outside of the plant because of the chemicals and the type of chemicals that were there," Styczynski told the Chicago Tribune.
Several roads were closed, and neighboring businesses were evacuated. All manufacturing processes at the plant were shut down, and natural gas lines in the area were shut off.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed that it was investigating.
Previous Fire Shut Down Plant
On Aug. 23, 2008, a release of chemical vapors caught fire after a lightening strike caused a power outage, according to company officials. One employee was hospitalized with chemical burns.
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The same plant caught fire in 2008, injuring one employee. After the incident, the company was temporarily shut down and was allowed to restart in May 2009.
The company said that because there was no back-up power supply, cooling and circulation systems in the phenol unit failed, causing the temperature and pressure inside the unit's oxidizers to increase and leading to the release of chemical vapors.
An estimated one million gallons of water used at the scene were contaminated by the released chemicals and caused fish to die in nearby ponds.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a complaint against the company, alleging air and water pollution, substantial danger to the environment, and failure to operate the facility in a manner that minimizes the release of hazardous substances.
Madigan announced in November 2008 that the plant would remain shut down until experts could determine how "apparent equipment failures" caused the chemical release and fire.
The settlement required Blue Island Phenol to retain an Illinois-licensed engineering firm to submit an analysis of the cause and recommend repairs and modifications to the phenol unit. The company also had to investigate the extent of soil and groundwater contamination caused by the runoff used to extinguish the fire.
The plant was allowed to restart in May 2009, according to a spokesperson for the Attorney General's office.
Chemical Hazards, Benzene Release
In February, OSHA issued one serious and one other-than-serious citation to Blue Island Phenol for occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals and personal protective equipment, respectively. The company paid $1,000 in penalties.
OSHA inspected the plant after the August 2008 fire but found no violations, an agency spokesperson said. However, OSHA opened another inspection in September 2008, citing the company for 22 violations, 19 serious and three other-than-serious, primarily related to process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals. The company paid $10,000 in penalties.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency issued citations for violations of the Clean Air Act to Blue Island Phenol, alleging that it "failed and continues to fail to cover and control emissions" from an oil/water separator that discharged wastewater containing benzene into a municipal sewer from 2009 through 2012.