Experts are calling for better data on incidents like the Lemont explosion
CBS 2’s Chris Tye looked into the issue and spoke with some who study the industry and who say government inspectors aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping those on the front lines safe.
It is still unclear what happened before 9:30 a.m. Monday at the refinery, and for those who study the industry, it is also unclear why this type of incident does not get the attention it needs to prevent such incidents from occurring.
There was an asphalt explosion outside Philadelphia in the summer of 2020, another in Seattle in the fall of that year, and in Oklahoma City the following year.
Now, the accident in the isolated southwestern suburbs of Lemont on Wednesday has cost a man his life.
If the question is “Do asphalt explosions occur often?” The hard truth is that we don’t know.
“You can’t fix what you can’t measure,” said Kirsten Rousselot, an environmental consultant and chemical engineer. “The number of explosions is not measured.”
Rousselot said there is no way to know if the country is seeing more explosions because there is no one responsible for tracking them. She added that none of the major agencies you might expect to track this type of tragedy are doing so. Not the EPA, OSHA, or US Chemical Safety Board.
“I’ve been opposed to this for a while,” Rousselot said, adding: “The regulatory community hasn’t caught on to the fact that this has changed.”
About 20 years ago, the process that refineries used to make most asphalt changed. Fumes from the top of tanks at a petroleum station are often flammable. The new processes release more flammable fumes than before. In the past, Rousselot said it would be “extremely unusual” for a hot tank to have a blast focus in its headspace, but it’s not unusual now.
It’s uncertain what caused Wednesday’s explosion at the plant, but what if that flammable vapor came into contact with sparks from welding equipment, for example, which is common in refineries?
“If a spark gets into the steam escaping through the port, it will travel into the tank, and that’s when the tank explodes,” Rousselot said.
Wednesday’s explosion cost the life of 25-year-old Drew Worker, of Homewood, while another Seneca Petroleum worker remains hospitalized, lives lost and workplaces transformed as voices for regulations grow louder inside refineries.
“Regulators have not been able to catch up with the new formats,” Rousselot said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating Tuesday’s incident, but when CBS 2 asked them, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Chemical Safety Board for comment on whether they have begun or might begin tracking these types of incidents, they did not They give an answer.
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