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September 19, 2014

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Plant safety a priority ten years after PEPCON blast

HENDERSON -- Mention PEPCON and Nevadans will launch into stories detailing where they were driving, eating, standing or meeting when the violent blast shook Clark County.

The massive explosion at the Pacific Engineering & Production Co. of Nevada -- better known as PEPCON -- is locked into residents' memories along with the fatal MGM Hotel blaze or even the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

It's been 10 years since the Henderson plant exploded, registering 3.5 on a Richter Scale 215 miles away in California and causing some $70 million damage in Southern Nevada.

Two people died in the blast, but the force of the explosion blew in the front doors and windows of homes miles away from the facility that produced rocket oxidizer for NASA.

Like most tragedies, the PEPCON explosion drew intense scrutiny from the state and Clark County officials. In-depth studies were conducted and changes were made.

Just weeks after PEPCON and three years after a Union Carbide plant in India leaked a lethal cloud of toxins that killed 2,500 people, the United Steelworkers of America released a report that addressed the plants' faults.

"Both resulted from the unsafe storage of dangerous chemicals, the lack of effective safety systems, poor maintenance and housekeeping, inadequate training, the failure to learn from previous accidents," Lynn R. William, international president of the steelworkers' group wrote.

"More vigorous government inspection and enforcement could have prevented either accident."

The Henderson Commission was also assembled by then-Gov. Richard Bryan in the days following the explosion. The committee accepted public comment about concerns regarding fire, health and safety, insurance and zoning.

The committee recommended that facilities throughout the state be inspected regularly and new plants should be built a safe distance from residential areas.

In 1991, the Chemical Catastrophe Prevention Act was adopted, which established a list of hazardous materials and set a limit on the amount facilities are permitted to store in the plant.

"There were a lot of problems with the storage of materials, storing them in large quantities and not having them properly separated," Mark Zusy, supervisor of the state's chemical accident prevention program, said of the PEPCON blast.

"I think based on the kind of inspections and requirements we have now, we could have noted some of the problems they had at that site."

Finally, programs to prevent future disasters were introduced by Zusy's agency, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

Plants producing hazardous materials are required to identify what could go wrong with the facility and then install safeguards such as sensors that sound when, for example, pressures reach unsafe levels.

Facility operators must also provide comprehensive reports that detail training of employees, emergency procedures and maintenance programs.

"We want to see that they are taking care of the equipment before it breaks," Zusy said. "We want to know they're doing things to keep the plant from failing catastrophically."

Investigators suspect a fire in the PEPCON facility that preceded the explosion was caused by welding equipment. But once a cluster of storage barrels exploded, shrapnel shot into another storage area, setting off a chain reaction.

The impact shattered windows and caused severe damage to businesses along Henderson's downtown corridor. Officials felt fortunate only 350 plant workers and residents were injured.

Keeping plants away from residential neighborhoods is difficult in Henderson, as the town was built around World War II facilities. However, Zusy said the logistics and planning surrounding new facilities must be seriously considered.

Many plants have been moved to Apex, off Interstate 15 about 15 miles north of Las Vegas.

Most Henderson residents remember the PEPCON accident like it was yesterday. And officials say when it comes to new programs and regulations, a decade also seems like a short amount of time.

Zusy said it will be another 10 years before officials can truly measure the effectiveness of the new restrictions.

"The objective of the program is to minimize the risks of accidents," he said. "We've had a significant improvement in a lot of areas, but there is never zero risk. Accidents can happen at even the best plants."

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