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Federal investigators to probe latest BP blast

Investigators for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board are moving forward with a detailed investigation of why a man died last month in an accident at BP's Texas City refinery, officials said.

A probe began several days after William Joseph Gracia's Jan. 14 death. Lead investigator Don Holmstrom, speaking during a news conference at League City, said among the possible explanations for the accident was an internal explosion inside a metal filter housing that caused a 500-pound lid to blow off.

"The goal of the investigation is to determine as precisely as possible what happened to cause this unfortunate event and to make recommendations to BP and others to prevent similar accidents in the future. Conducting this investigation will take a number of months," said William Wark, a CSB board member.

Holmstrom told the Chronicle last week that if the most likely scenario for an accident was determined to be outside the agency's jurisdiction — such as one that does not involve chemicals — investigators would withdraw.

However, he said that witnesses reported that process fluid used in the facility sometimes contained hydrogen, flammable light hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide, a toxic and flammable gas.

"These substances are a possible fuel for an explosion, in the presence of oxygen and an ignition source. Fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source form the so-called 'fire triangle,'" Holmstrom said.

The investigation will involve testing of the process water as a possible blast source.

Gracia was the third man to die at the Texas City plant since 15 contractors were killed in an explosion there in March 2005. Holmstrom also led the CSB's two-year investigation of the blast, the longest in the agency's history.

BP and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also are investigating Gracia's death.

He sustained fatal injuries when a metal lid that had been bolted down on a water filtration vessel flew off as it was being restarted. The filtration system is attached to a compressor on the refinery's ultracracker unit, which makes raw materials used to process gasoline and other products. The compressor wasn't running at the time.

A metallurgist is testing the bolts to determine whether their age and condition contributed to the accident.

BP said Gracia, who worked at the plant for 34 years and was an operations supervisor, suffered a head injury. Tony Buzbee, a lawyer for his family, said he also was burned.

 

KRISTEN HAYS
Houston Chronicle
February 7, 2008