August 20, 2008

U.S. Chemical Safety Board to Probe Wis. Explosion

By The Associated Press

TOMAHAWK, Wis. (AP) - The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Friday it will investigate the storage tank explosion that killed three workers and injured a fourth at a paper mill in northern Wisconsin last month.

The explosion at Packaging Corporation of America in Tomahawk may be similar to explosions at other paper mills during hot work, Board chairman John Bresland said.

"CSB investigators were present at the mill throughout last week, examining the accident scene, conducting interviews and gathering evidence," he said. "Packaging Corporation has fully cooperated with the investigation."

The independent federal agency said the Tomahawk accident on July 29 occurred as workers were welding atop an 80-foot-tall storage tank containing recycled water and paper fiber.

An internal explosion ripped open the tank lid, knocking two workers to the ground.

Bresland said the Chemical Safety Board will examine whether microbes in the tank produced flammable gas to fuel the explosion.

Large storage tanks at paper mills, especially those that are stagnant, poorly mixed or have material in them for a long time, are at an elevated risk for the growth of the microbes, he said. Recycled plant water contains nutrients that promote growth of the organisms, producing hydrogen or other flammable gases that can be set off by hot work or other sources of ignition.

The cause of the explosion remains to be determined, Bresland said. The Chemical Safety Board will conduct microbiological and chemical testing to understand what fueled the blast.

The investigation is expected to take about a year.

The Board, appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies.

Randy Hoegger, 56, of Tomahawk, Donald Snyder, 46, of Merrill, and Steve Voermans, 52, of Tomahawk, died in the blast. The injured worker, Alex Loka of Tomahawk, was standing on a platform at a lower level of the tank and suffered minor injuries.

Packaging Corporation of America, an Illinois-based company that makes containerboard and corrugated packaging products, operates four paper mills and 67 corrugated product plans in 26 states. According to the company's Web site, it employs 8,350 people nationwide and posted sales of $2.3 billion last year.

The Tomahawk mill has three semi-chemical corrugating machines and produces more than 572 million tons annually, the company said.


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