Five Dead in ‘Blow Down’ Explosion at Connecticut Gas Plant

MIDDLETOWN, Connecticut, February 7, 2010 – A major explosion at a natural gas power plant under construction on the bank of the Connecticut River has killed at least five people and injured 12 others. Middletown Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said the explosion at about 11 this morning appears to have occurred when operators attempted a “blow down” of natural gas pipelines, a process that involves clearing air from the pipelines.

The explosion sent a fireball higher than the stacks of the nearly completed Kleen Energy Systems power plant on River Road. Black smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air over the snow-covered ground. Now, the $1 billion, 620-megawatt power plant is just a shell.

“There are bodies everywhere,” a witness told reporters after the explosion. Rescue personnel said victims may still be buried in the remains of the building.

Governor M. Jodi Rell has activated the Urban Search and Rescue Team. Seven of the injured were taken to Middlesex hospital, 2 are being treated at Hartford hospital.

The Kleen Energy natural gas power plant after the explosion (Photo by Malaycobra)

Governor Rell also activated the Emergency Operations Center in Hartford, which is being staffed by the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, the National Guard and the State Police. The Department of Public Health is providing tents at the scene for shelter and medical triage.

“The scene in Middletown is still very active and dozens of state, local and other officials are working tirelessly,” Governor Rell said this afternoon. “Their efforts are expected to continue through the rest of the day and night and into tomorrow. As details are confirmed, Middletown officials, who have control of the scene, will brief the community and the media.

“I thank the many first responders who are braving the very cold and windy conditions. I ask the people of Connecticut to keep those working at the plant at the time of the explosion and their families in their prayers.”

The explosion was heard and felt for miles. It was so intense, some people in the area mistook the blast for an earthquake. The windows of neighboring homes were blown out, and the blast rocked the foundations of homes across the river, leaving cracks in foundations, walls and doors.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, CSB,is deploying a seven-person team to the site of the explosion. The team is expected on site by midday on Monday.

CSB lead investigator Don Holmstrom said, “The CSB’s investigative team will examine the activities that were ongoing at the time of this accident, including any gas purging, as indicated by initial media reports.”

At a public meeting on Thursday, the CSB issued urgent recommendations that the national fuel gas codes be changed to improve safety when gas pipes are being purged during maintenance or the installation of new piping.

The Board’s urgent recommendations resulted from the Chemical Safety Board’s ongoing federal investigation into the June 9, 2009, natural gas explosion at the ConAgra Slim Jim production facility in Garner, North Carolina, which caused four deaths, three critical life-threatening burn injuries, and other injuries that sent a total of 67 people to the hospital.

The CSB issued a safety bulletin on gas purging in October 2009, because of the occurrence of multiple serious accidents during purging operations.

Key safety lessons described in the bulletin included purging gases to a safe location outdoors away from ignition sources, evacuating non-essential workers during purging, using combustible gas monitors to detect any hazardous gas accumulations, and effective training for personnel involved in purging,

Holmstrom leads the CSB’s Western Regional Office located in Denver, Colorado, and led the agency’s investigation into the 2009 purging accident at the ConAgra facility in Garner, North Carolina.

In 2008, Energy Investors Funds, with a multibillion-dollar power-generation portfolio of properties across the country, acquired 80 percent of Kleen Energy by pulling together $985 million in construction financing. The project was underwritten by Goldman Sachs, and “ProjectFinance” magazine named it “The Deal of the Year” in 2008.

Approved by state regulators earlier in the decade, the plant was to be among the biggest new electric projects in New England.

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