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Shale And The Safety Challenge Ahead

Incidents at chemical plants in Louisiana one week ago left three people dead. Two were killed in an explosion and fire at a Williams Cos. ethylene cracker in Geismar. One died when a nitrogen manifold ruptured at a CF Industries complex in Donaldsonville.

A write up by Jeff Johnson and me appears here. The genesis of the story is an interesting one. Last Monday, I called Jeff about blasts. I made the observation that both plants were undergoing work. The Williams plant is being expanded by 50% this year to take greater advantage of shale gas. An ammonia unit at the CF facilities was undergoing a scheduled turnaround.

The process of shutting down, working on, and restarting units is a major danger for chemical operators in a similar way that takeoff and landing are the most treacherous moments of flight.

Jeff is very aware of this. He owns the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board beat. He also mentioned to me that the CSB is overtaxed. Its staff of 40 has 15 investigations to cover right now. It hasn’t launched an investigation into CF yet for want of manpower.

Shale will lead to a flood of construction the likes of which the U.S. chemical industry has never seen. According to the American Chemistry Council, the amount of capital spending for already announced products is $71.7 billion, and climbing. There will be a big chunk of the chemical industry in the danger zone for accidents.

Williams' Geismar ethylene cracker.

Williams’ Geismar ethylene cracker.

Back in March, I attended a talk at the IHS World Petrochemical Conference in Houston by Richard Meserole, vice president of energy and chemicals construction at the engineering firm Fluor. He had staggering numbers. In just a 50 mile radius from Houston, 45 projects worth $100 million or more will require 20,000 new craft workers. All these skilled laborers such as welders, iron workers, and pipefitters couldn’t even fit into the Toyota Center for a Rockets game.

Many of these workers will come from outside the region. Many will be recently trained. And though every construction site—even for a back yard deck—present hazards, are all these workers prepared for the particular nuances of an environment with volatile and highly reactive chemicals?

Let us hope that the chemical industry and those regulating it are up to the challenge.