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Report: PCA explosion happened without fire

DeRIDDER, Louisiana (From the Beauregard Daily News) -- As the investigation continues into the Feb. 8 explosion at the Packaging Corporation of America facility, preliminary signs indicate that there was no fire at all. The explosion at the DeRidder facility may have had another source altogether.

A person who claims to be an employee of PCA sent information Monday to the Beauregard Daily News. The author has not stepped forward, for fear of repercussions, but at least part of the story has been confirmed by investigators.

The anonymous text stated:

"The explosion was caused by an automatic valve left unlocked on top of the tank they were standing on. The tank was being filled up by steam pressure for over 20 hours by accident.

"The tank wasn't designed to handle that. It didn't have a release valve to release that much pressure, so it exploded and took off like a rocket.

"The fire brigade told us there was no fire. We just thought that it had exploded and burned itself out, but it was the steam pressure that blown [sic] two men apart and left one man's body in tact. They had steam burns on their bodies, not fire burns."

The text went on to state that computer records show that the tank was being filled up with steam pressure up to the time of the explosion.

Two sources confirmed there was no fire to be put out at the site of the explosion. Chief Deputy Joe Toler, with the Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office, and Deputy Chief Brant Thompson, with the State Fire Marshall's office, released their information Monday.

"Indications at this time is that there was no fire. At this point, we have collected no evidence that there was a fire or flash fire. No one we've spoken to identified a fire at the facility that day when the explosion occurred," said Thompson.

The investigation is ongoing, but as soon as the teams feel comfortable that the information they have is factual and accurate, they will begin to share their findings with the public. Thompson hopes his office can provide some information soon.

"There are a lot of moving parts, and a lot of agencies partnering in this investigation, so it could take some time," he said.

Sgt. James Anderson, State Police Troop D spokesman, also said the information in the anonymous letter could be accurate, but he spoke with caution.

"There's nothing in what he said that doesn't make sense, but I can't officially confirm it. At this point in our investigation, we are not prepared to say anything along those lines."

Robert Mundy, senior vice president and chief financial officer for Packaging Corporation of America, had no comments on the contents of the text. But he said Tuesday morning that the company was working with investigators.

"We're just committed to investigating this incident and understanding the causes. We're cooperating with all the governmental agencies that are investigating it." he said.

Mundy said PCA has provided investigators access to the scene and are answering the investigators' requests.

"It's just premature to speculate about the potential causes, because the investigation is ongoing," Mundy said.

As previously reported, the three workers who died in the explosion were identified as Jody Gooch, 40, of Newton County, William Rolls, 32, of Reeves, Louisiana, and Sedrick Stallworth, 42, of Houston. They worked for Elite Specialty Welding, LLC in Pasadena.

Seven other people sustained minor to moderate injuries, Anderson said.

Initially, there was one worker who was unaccounted for, but he has been found unharmed, Anderson said.

Last week, Anderson had said that welding activity was taking place near the tank that exploded. The tank contained "foul condensate, which is a by-product of the cooking process," he said.

The explosion was powerful enough to cause the tank to fly and land in a different area of the mill.

In an earlier statement to the media, CSB officials said the kind of work which caused the explosions at the PCA mill is innately dangerous. Welding is one of several types of "hot work," or any operation creating sparks.

Accidents stemming from hot work occur in many industries in the U.S., including food processing, pulp and paper manufacturing, oil production, fuel storage, and waste treatment. Most incidents result in the ignition of combustible materials, such as a roofing fire, or the ignition of structures or debris near the hot work.

The agency has investigated many hot work accidents nationwide, including a 2008 explosion that killed three workers at a PCA mill in Tomahawk, Wisconsin.

Following that particular incident, steps were taken to avoid similar incidents in the future. The CSB issued discussed the hazards of welding and other hot work in a 2010 safety bulletin with the title "Seven Key Lessons to Prevent Worker Deaths during Hot Work In and Around Tanks."

In 2013, United Steelworkers members from PCA mills in Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan, and Wisconsin, voted to ratify a new contract with the company. The agreement spanned many areas such as health care and wage increases, but, notably, it stated the company would take several steps forward on facility health and safety issues.

According to a statement released by PCA last week, the incident involved annual repair work being performed on piping in the pulp mill area and resulted in three contractor fatalities, according to a statement released by PCA.

"At the time of the incident, the D1 machine was down for its annual outage and the D3 machine was running and continues to operate. The current assessment indicates that the annual outage work is expected to be delayed by up to one week and the mill will then resume full operation," read the statement. "Primary concern is for the safety and well-being of the people working on the their site, and investigation of the incident with authorities," the statement read.

The Lake Forest-Illinois-based PCA acquired the old Boise paper mill in 2013. DeRidder's PCA facility has more than 700 workers on site, every day, making corrugated containerboard.

Over last decade, in PCA facilities across the country, 154 violations and five deaths have been reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

PCA has not logged any violations at the Louisiana facility since the company acquired it. PCA has, however, received repeated fines in recent years at some of its other facilities around the United States, according to OSHA.

"What is happening at the facility demonstrates a company culture that does not value safety and puts employees at risk each day," said Howard Eberts, OSHA's area director in Cleveland, in a 2014 press release about fines against the company.

Workers at the Akron facility were repeatedly exposed to occupational dangers. Three of the infractions were marked as repeat violations "for failing to protect workers from amputation and other serious hazards," Eberts said.

In March 2013, at the Tomahawk, Wisconsin, pulp and paper mill, OSHA found the company to be responsible for 30 safety violations, following an incident where a worker was severely burned while attempting to relight a steam boiler in the pulp and paper mill.

At the same site in 2012, "a steam and ash release triggered by fly ash" fatally injured two workers.

Another three employees were killed and another injured in a 2008 explosion, in the facility's storage area.

"It was believed hydrogen and methane gas were generated by anaerobic bacteria subsisting on the starches released into the recycled mill water while the used corrugated material was reduced to fiber. It was believed the welding on the flange exterior ignited a flammable gas mixture in the headspace of the tank and it exploded," reads the OSHA report.

In 2009, the company was fined for six violations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when it "failed to provide adequate personal protection equipment to workers responding to a caustic solution spill. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirement, or plain indifference to employee safety and health."

OSHA found two repeat violations of workplace safety standards in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. The company was fined after workers were found exposed to machinery hazards, including conveyor belts that lacked protective guarding and failures to adhere to proper procedures to shut down machines.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board stated that representatives have deployed to PCA in DeRidder. The Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents.

The Beauregard Sheriff's Department, the DeRidder Police Department, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration are also investigating.

*****

Join Jim Thompson on the 2nd Annual Papermakers Mission Trip to Guatemala, 22 - 29 July 17. Build houses, talk about the pulp and paper industry. For more information, email jthompson@taii.com with "Guatemala" in the subject line.


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