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Synthron Blamed in Report on Blast: Failure to Implement Safety Standards Led to Explosion, Board Says

August 1, 2007

By Greg Lacour, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Aug. 1–A 2006 chemical plant explosion in Morganton that killed one person and injured 14 was the result of lax oversight by the plant’s parent company, haphazard management of chemicals and the lack of an emergency plan, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has concluded.

All of the problems involved Synthron’s failure to comply with commonly accepted industry safety standards, board officials said Tuesday.

“The safeguards are well-known,” said board member John Bresland. “It’s not rocket science.”

The board held a news conference in Charlotte to release the full results of its investigation of the explosion, which destroyed the plant on Jan. 31, 2006, and damaged homes up to a third of a mile away.

The board’s final report paints Synthron as deficient in nearly every aspect of its operation, from its Paris-based parent company, Protex International, to the ill-advised overloading of the plant’s chemical reactor — the direct cause of the explosion.

But the board can only recommend action; it has no power to punish chemical companies. It recommended Protex establish a program to follow industry safety practices for managing chemicals at its remaining three U.S. plants, in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida.

Messages left at Synthron’s Morganton office went unreturned Tuesday. The former plant site is vacant.

Synthron manufactured acrylic polymers for use as paint additives. Late that morning, plant managers tried to fill an order that was 12 percent larger than its usual batch, the board determined.

Instead of making the material in two smaller batches, managers decided to try to make it in one large batch. The excess heat from the process overwhelmed a coolant system that investigators said showed no sign of having been inspected or cleaned in 30 years.

Chemical vapor escaped into the building through a poorly secured reactor hatch. Some minutes later, the reactor exploded.

Maintenance supervisor Curtis “Butch” Brackett, 55, was severely burned and died five days later. Two others were seriously injured, and the remaining 12, including two people driving by the plant, suffered minor injuries.

One of the injured workers, 43-year-old Harvey Presley, attended the news conference and said he wasn’t surprised by the board’s findings.

“There was a lot of stuff that needed to be done, but (the company) wouldn’t spend the money,” said Presley, who hurt his back and suffered first- and second-degree burns to his head. “They got the cheapest stuff they could out there.”

Presley is one of seven workers injured in the explosion, along with Brenda Brackett, Butch Brackett’s widow, who plan to sue Synthron and Protex. Last year, Synthron filed for bankruptcy, which usually protects a company from civil claims.

But the workers have asked the bankruptcy court to lift the protection; if it does, they’ll file the suit, said Clair Campbell, their Charlotte attorney.

A year ago, the N.C. Department of Labor announced that it would fine Synthron $379,050, the fourth-largest fine in department history, for violations it discovered after the explosion. The company is challenging the fine, which the department has not collected.

Even with the failures in procedures and equipment, the Safety Board determined, workers had enough time to reach safety once they noticed the escaping vapor. But plant managers never told employees what to do in an emergency and never held evacuation drills.

In the previous year, Protex had replaced most of the plant managers in an attempt to reverse lagging sales, and the new managers had little to no experience in handling emergencies. “There was definitely a blind spot there,” said James Lay, the board’s lead investigator. “People didn’t know what they didn’t know.”

The Synthron Disaster

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has determined that these factors led to the Jan. 31, 2006, explosion at Synthron Inc. in Morganton and the death and 14 injuries that resulted: –Failure to recognize potential hazards. –Poorly documented safety information. –Failure to control an abnormal reaction. –Lack of safeguards to prevent or mitigate the effects of loss of control over reaction. –Improper bolting of the reactor hatch. –Poor operator training. –Inadequate emergency plans. –Inadequate corporate oversight of safety procedures.

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