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Companies Fined in Fatal NY Tank Blast

Friday, May 6, 2011

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A DuPont chemical plant and a contractor with a once-spotless safety record are facing a total of 17 federal safety citations and nearly $117,000 in fines in a fatal explosion at the plant near Buffalo, NY, in November.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited DuPont’s Yerkes Plant for nine violations and proposed $61,500 in fines in the blast. OSHA cited Mollenberg-Betz Mechanical Contractors of Buffalo for eight violations and proposed $55,440 in fines.

Empty Tank Explodes

The accident occurred Nov. 9 as Richard Folaron, 57, a father of four, was welding a bracket atop an empty 10,000-gallon slurry tank at the Yerkes Plant in Tonawanda, NY. Folaron was killed instantly when the tank exploded. William Freeburg, his co-worker on the ground, suffered burns and possible hearing damage.

The blast was felt a mile away.

Folaron and Freeburg were both longtime employees of Mollenberg-Betz, a third-generation family operation.

Cause a Mystery

Authorities were baffled by the explosion. The tank had recently been cleaned, inspected, taken out of service and was undergoing maintenance. The project had proper permits.

Mollenberg-Betz and the plant had worked together for more than 20 years, and both companies had excellent safety records. The contractor marked its centennial in September and, until then, had never had a fatality. The company had even achieved the rare “Merit” status with OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program.

 US Chemical Safety Board

 US Chemical Safety Board

The explosion of the 10,000-gallon tank killed a welder instantly.

The initial investigation focused on the possibility of incomplete cleaning that left chemical traces in the tank, which had contained polyvinyl fluoride, or PVF, in slurry form.

Vapors Cited

OSHA’s investigation, however, concluded that the explosion had been caused by welding sparks igniting flammable vapors inside the tank. Although the tank was empty, it was still connected to two operating slurry tanks, and flammable vapors seeped through the interconnected piping system into the tank where Folaron was working, OSHA reported.

“This death and injury graphically underscore how vitally important it is that employers anticipate the hazards associated with welding in potentially explosive atmospheres, and institute all protective measures before allowing such work to begin,” said Arthur Dube, OSHA’s area director in Buffalo.

The plant, built in 1921, manufactures Corian and a polyvinyl fluoride film used for covering applications.


OSHA cited both companies for allegedly:

  • Allowing welding to be conducted in an explosive atmosphere;
  • Performing welding without disconnecting or blanking the pipelines to the tank;
  • Not venting all containers to permit escape of gases prior to welding;
  • Not ensuring that the tanks had been thoroughly cleaned of flammable materials;
  • Failing to schedule the work outside plant operations that might expose combustibles to ignition; and
  • Not determining the hazardous areas present or likely to be present in the work location.
Mollenberg-Betz also was cited for not verifying that the slurry tank was empty before welding began and for a lack of specific hazardous energy control procedures.

DuPont also was cited for:
  • Incomplete hazardous energy control procedures;
  • Not inserting blanks or blinds in the interconnected slurry tank overflow line to prevent transmission of flammable vapor into the slurry tank;
  • Not informing Mollenberg-Betz of potential explosion hazards related to hot work on the slurry tank;
  • Not informing Mollenberg-Betz of the plant’s hazardous energy control program; and
  • Using unapproved electrical equipment in a hazardous location.
A serious violation reflects a “substantial probability” of death or serious injury from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

“An injury and illness prevention program, in which employees and management work together to proactively identify and eliminate hazardous conditions on a continual basis, is a powerful tool for preventing needless and preventable incidents such as this one,” said Robert Kulick, OSHA’s regional administrator in New York.

Company Responses

Mollenberg-Betz was not immediately available for comment.

DuPont spokesman Rick Straitman released this statement:

“DuPont received the citation from OSHA on May 2, and we have been reviewing the agency’s findings concerning the tragic accident which occurred at our Yerkes site on November 9, 2010. We plan to meet with OSHA in the next few days to discuss this matter. We have been cooperating fully with the Agency throughout their investigation.”

Each employer has 15 business days to contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.


Tagged categories: DuPont; Explosions; Fatalities; Health and safety; OSHA

Comment from Ben Johnson, (5/9/2011, 10:51 AM)

This structure was not cleaned correctly or there was leaking inlet valve, so easily avoided. I feel for all in this ordeal!

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/11/2011, 12:29 PM)

I am always surprised at how low these fines are - even before the reduction and settlement.

Comment from Carl Mantegna, (5/13/2011, 8:20 PM)

Whenever hotwork is performed on an enclosed space an explosimeter reading should be taken to determine Safe For Hotwork. It used to be basic

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