Formosa Plastics neighbors not concerned about safety despite two recent fires
Sept. 13, 2013 at 4:13 a.m.
Updated Sept. 14, 2013 at 4:14 a.m.
At 10:20 a.m. Friday an accident at the Formosa Plastic Corp injured five employees.
What went wrong in 2005
• A trailer being towed by a forklift caught a valve protruding from a propylene piping system and pulled it out.
• The pressurized liquid propylene escaped and partially vaporized, creating a both a pool of liquid and an expanding vapor cloud.
• The vapor cloud ignited.
• A large pool fire burned under the pipe rack and the side of an elevated structure that supported numerous vessels, heat exchanges and relief valves.
• About 30 minutes later, the side of the elevated structure collapsed, leading to multiple ruptures of piping and equipment.
• Fuel sources were isolated where possible, and small fires were allowed to burn the uncontained hydrocarbons.
• After, the company needed to revise policies and procedures to more fully evaluate vehicle impact hazards, passive fire protection and catastrophic releases and require flame-resistant clothing for workers in units at the Point Comfort complex where there is a risk of flash fires.
POINT COMFORT - Residents living near Formosa Plastics said they don't have major concerns about safety despite two recent fires at the plant.
Five employees were injured around 10:20 a.m. Friday when a fire erupted in a tower being serviced, said Bill Harvey, Formosa communications manager.
Hospital:Victims' families gather in support
The tower was shut down for scheduled maintenance prior to the fire, Harvey said.
Initially, employees were assisted at an on-site medical facility, but "because of the nature of the injuries," Harvey said the workers were taken to outside hospitals.
Four of the employees were transported by helicopter to the burn unit at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, and the fifth was taken by ambulance to Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, said Calhoun County Sheriff George Aleman.
One employee was released from the hospital Friday afternoon, Harvey said, but he would not say from which hospital.
Employees were conducting scheduled maintenance on the tower in the high-density polyethylene-II unit, which produces a polypropylene-based plastic pellet, prior to the fire, but Harvey was not able to confirm if all workers were in the tower when the blaze began.
Formosa declined to release the names of the injured to protect its employees' privacy.
Terry Vinyard, 46, who lives across Farm-to-Market Road 1593, which separates her from the plant, said she knew about the fire but wasn't worried about her or her family's safety.
In the past, Vinyard said, the plant has sent emergency phone and text messages when there is an incident that may affect those living near the plant.
Those who register for the free service receive automated phone calls or text messages when there is a danger to the community, Harvey said.
As a safety precaution, the plant also has an alarm system that delivers varying tones to warn neighbors about possible dangers. The alarm is tested every Monday morning, Harvey said.
"If there is something we feel might pose a threat to the community, there is a whole series of sirens we'll activate," he said. "It's really important to us that we're good neighbors."
Vinyard said between the automated warning calls and the fire department located at the plant, she doesn't see a need to worry, "They have everything under control over there," she said. "Nothing major has happened there for a few years."
In 2005, a vapor cloud ignited at the plant when a trailer being towed by a fork lift accidently pulled out a propylene piping system valve.
The five-day blaze injured 16 people and caused the town to shut down for about six hours with a shelter-in-place order.
Eric Galvan, 39, who has lived in the area for a year and a half, said he's never worried about safety for himself as a resident.
Galvan did, however, worry about the safety of the workers at the plant when he saw the helicopter hovering over it Friday.
Galvan works at Alcoa, near Formosa, where five employees suffered chemical-related injuries earlier in the week. He thought maybe a similar incident happened at Formosa.
TCEQ media relations manager Terry Clawson said radiated entities are required to file with the commission within 24 hours of an incident and that the last record filed was in July.
An emissions event was filed at 5:45 p.m. July 17 that stated a routine sampling of chill water tanks in the unit indicated a vinyl chloride monomer leak to the water.
Vinyl chloride monomer is a highly toxic, flammable and carcinogenic compound.
The report stated it took several days to purge the compound from the water, but the leak was eventually stopped.
Information about Friday's incident has not been reported to the commission, and it is too early to tell the cause of the fire, Clawson said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating Friday's incident, said Juan Rodriguez, an OSHA spokesman.
An investigation also continues into a May 2 fire at Formosa that sent 14 people to hospitals.
Although the investigation itself is in depth, the process is simple, Rodriguez said.
OSHA will respond to the incident and interview witnesses and other employees, he explained. The organization also looks for equipment failure and looks into the companies involved for past compliance issues.
Companies are required to report to OSHA any incident with three or more injuries resulting in hospitalization or any incident involving a fatality, Rodriguez said. Still, anyone can report concerns to the safety organization.
People who witness unsafe behavior can call OSHA at 1-800-321-6742 or visit OSHA.gov.
The organization does a quick analysis following any report, he said, before deciding whether to pursue an investigation.
Advocate reporter Allison Miles contributed to this report.