Safety Board Cites Flaws and Recommendations For First Chemical

The process that was going on inside the tower that blew involved a chemical known as MNT. It's related to TNT and can be explosive when exposed to high temperatures.

Chemical Safety Board Investigators say workers at Pascagoula's First Chemical Corporation didn't know that a dangerous reaction was taking place inside a distillation tower on the morning of October 13, 2002.

"Bad material that was in a column, the column was shut down at the time but steam leaked through values and continued to heat the material and caused an explosion," Investigator Stephen Wallace said.

The explosion sent debris flying a quarter mile away. Investigators say plant workers didn't recognize that the valves used to shut off steam to the column had deteriorated.

The safety board recommends several things that Dupont, the plant's owner, should do to protect its workers and lessen the chances of another blast. Some of those include better monitoring when processing materials,  installing alarms, upgrading maintenance on critical equipment and establishing inspection schedules.

"More safety features at the point of the column where the incident actually occurred. Also, we recommend they take action to keep consequences from being worse, putting the control room, making the structure of the control room such that it can protect the people inside," Wallace said.

The three employees who were hurt were working inside the control room. Investigators say it was only 50 feet away from the tower that exploded and wasn't built to withstand the blast.

The company says it spent $2 and a half million to move the control room and is also following recommendations to make the plant safer.

"Recommendations that have been presented here are in alignment with our findings associated with the root cause investigation that we have conducted. And the corrective action recommendations have already taken place at that facility," Vice President of Operations, James Elllis, said.

The safety board will pass its recommendations on to OSHA and the EPA in hopes that more federal regulations will be put in place.

"Until we strengthen the federal regulatory scheme of managing these reactive chemicals, we're all gonna live in danger," Board Chairman Dr. Gerald Poje said.

The CSB also recommends Jackson County establish a notification system to alert nearby companies and neighborhoods of an emergency.  The county has done that by setting up its Reverse 911 system.

Dupont did not own First Chemical at the time of the explosion.  It is now, however, responsible for making the plant safe.