Federal, state and local authorities are investigating a baffling tank explosion that has killed one worker and injured another at a DuPont plant in Western New York.
The explosion of the 10,000-gallon empty tank occurred about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday (Nov. 9) at the DuPont Yerkes Plant in Tonawanda, NY, and was felt a mile away, authorities said.
Richard Folaron, 57, a father of four from South Wales, NY, was killed instantly.
William Freeburg, about 50 years old, of Angola, NY, was reported in stable condition Wednesday (Nov. 10) at a local hospital.
Freeburg suffered superficial facial burns, but officials remain concerned about his hearing and vision, because he was so close to the blast.
Both men worked for Mollenberg-Betz Mechanical Contractors, a third-generation family operation in Buffalo. The company marked its centennial in September and, until now, had never had a fatality.
Folaron was welding a bracket on top of the tank about 20 feet up when the blast occurred, said Jim Camarre, the company’s CFO and VP of Finance. Freeburg was on the ground; it is not clear what he was doing.
The tank had recently been cleaned, inspected, taken out of service and was undergoing maintenance, DuPont said in a company statement.
“While workers were welding equipment connected to the tank, an explosion took place which resulted in the injuries,” the statement said. “The incident was limited to the equipment that was being worked on, and the process involved has been shut down.”
The plant was not evacuated, no vapors were released, and all other employees were safe, DuPont said. The plant, built in 1921, manufactures Corian and a polyvinyl fluoride film used for covering applications. It employs more than 700 people.
‘The Last Place We Expected This’
Authorities are baffled by the explosion, which involved a permitted job, experienced contractors, and two companies with sterling safety records. The incident is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, local police and fire officials, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
OSHA Area Director Art Dube confirmed that the tank was completely vacuumed out two weeks ago and said the project had all of the proper permits. The DuPont facility has “an excellent safety record,” Dube added.
Camarre agreed, saying his company had worked with DuPont for more than 20 years. “DuPont is probably the hardest company in Western New York to work for,” Camarre said. “They’re a very safety-conscious facility. So this was the last place we expected this to happen.”
Freeburg’s wife told Camarre that Freeburg occasionally grumbled about DuPont’s relentless safety requirements, Camarre said.
“All safety procedures that were supposed to be followed were followed, but obviously the tank they were working on exploded, so something went wrong somewhere,” he said.
Mollenberg-Betz is an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program employer. VPP employers have met rigorous performance-based criteria for a managed safety and health system. The program includes onsite evaluations.
Mollenberg-Betz is one of just 46 employers nationwide with OSHA VPP “Merit” status.
Folaron had worked for Mollenberg-Betz for 15 years and had more than 30 years of experience. Freeburg has worked there for more than 25 years.
DuPont spokesman David A. Hastings told the Buffalo News that the tank previously held a chemical known as polyvinyl fluoride, or PVF, in slurry form. The chemical is used as a protective coating for solar panels and is a powder in its final form, Hastings said.
Dube, of OSHA, speculated in published reports that “probably a little bit of some unknown material [was] left in the tank."
Mike Stratton, the Assistant Director for OSHA in Buffalo, told reporters, “It is an organic chemical; it does give off flammable vapors."
DuPont said it was “cooperating fully” in the external investigations and conducting one of its own.