Agency issues final report on fatal blast at New Cumberland plant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – New Cumberland metal recycler AL Solutions’ failure to take certain necessary safety precautions likely led to the December 2010 explosion that killed three workers, a federal agency has concluded.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, meeting in Charleston on Wednesday, said AL Solutions Inc. failed to properly maintain blender equipment, did not have an effective dust collection program and used a water deluge system that may have contributed to the explosion.

“It is very troubling that we are here reporting on yet another fatal combustible dust accident,” CSB member Mark Griffon said.

Board members used Wednesday’s meeting to once again call on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promulgate rules governing the use of combustible dust by companies such as AL Solutions – something that the CSB has been asking for since 2006.

“Had a national standard for combustible dust been in place in 2006 … many of the severe dust incidents that followed, including AL Solutions, may have been prevented,” said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso. “The time is now for OSHA to take action to prevent these tragic accidents.”

The CSB report, which comes three and a half years after the accident, said the explosion was caused by combustible titanium and zirconium dusts that were processed at the New Cumberland facility. Subsequent testing done on zirconium and titanium samples determined that the materials were combustible and were capable of causing an explosion when lofted near heat or an ignition source, the report said.

AL Solutions, whose corporate offices remain in New Cumberland but whose operations mainly are in Burgettstown, Pa., and Washington, Mo., recycles titanium and zirconium raw materials for use as alloying additives by aluminum producers. The materials are formed into Ty-Gem and Zy-Gem compacts, or pucks, using a proprietary process, according to the company’s website.

Company officials could not be reached for comment on the CSB findings.

The Dec. 9, 2010, accident killed three AL Solutions employees – brothers James Eugene Fish, 38, and Jeffrey Scott Fish, 39, both of New Cumberland, and Steven Swain, 27, of Weirton. The Fish brothers were pronounced dead at the scene, and Swain succumbed to injuries he suffered in the blast four days later in a Pittsburgh hospital.

Two women identifying themselves as aunts of Swain attended Wednesday’s meeting in Charleston but declined comment, saying they were advised by family attorneys not to speak.

The 31-page CSB report, which includes findings and recommendations, bears a dedication to the Fish brothers and to Swain. Moure-Eraso also asked for a moment of silence on Wednesday after reading the men’s names.

The reports said the three men were working in the AL Solutions production area at 1:20 p.m. Dec. 9, 2010, when a spark or hot spot from a blender likely ignited the zirconium powder inside. The resulting flash lofted the metal dust particles in the blender, forming a burning metal dust cloud, the report said.

The Fish brothers were working in the blending and press room, while Swain was a zirconium press operator.

The cloud ignited other combustible dust within the production area and caused a secondary explosion that ripped through the plant, killing the three men and injuring a contract worker.

“As the metals were broken down during milling, the risk of a metal dust fire or explosion increased as the metal particles decreased in size,” lead CSB investigator Johnnie Banks said. “At AL Solutions, a metal blender used to process zirconium was having mechanical problems that had not been adequately repaired. As a result, the blender was producing heat or sparks due to metal-to-metal contact.”

The report said a nearby New Cumberland volunteer firefighter heard the explosion and immediately went to the scene. Other firefighters attempted to access the building through the office, but the fire was too intense for them to enter, the report said.

The explosion was powerful enough to propel papers, desks and lockers from the office onto the parking lot outside the production building, the report said.

The report also noted that this was not the first fatal accident at AL Solutions’ New Cumberland plant: A propane explosion in 1995 led to a secondary titanium dust explosion, killing one worker and injuring another; and a 2006 dust explosion in a mill tank caused another fatality.

Both times, OSHA investigated and fined the facility, CSB investigator Mark Wingard said.

From 1993 until the December 2010 incident, the New Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department responded to at least seven fires at AL Solutions, Wingard said.

“The CSB learned that several other fires occurred at the New Cumberland facility that did not result in a fire department response,” he said. “In fact, almost all employees reported that they had witnessed one or more fires in the production building.”

Despite that record, AL Solutions continued to use a “housekeeping approach” to minimizing dust accumulations, rather than adopting more robust engineering controls, Wingard said.

The CSB recommends the National Fire Protection Association’s “Standard for Combustible Metals,” known as NFPA 484, which states that affirmative steps of dust control, such as dust collection equipment, should be implemented above housekeeping, Wingard said.

“AL Solutions did not voluntarily follow those guidelines, and there are no federal OSHA standards to enforce similar requirements,” he said.

The CSB report contains findings and recommendations (see sidebar), but the independent federal agency cannot issue fines or citations.

In addition to the CSB, the New Cumberland accident triggered investigations by OSHA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection – as well as wrongful death lawsuits by the Fish brothers’ estates and the family of Steven Swain. The lawsuits against AL Solutions and two out-of-state parent companies are still pending in Hancock County Circuit Court.

The EPA and OSHA cases were settled earlier this year when AL Solutions agreed to pay a civil penalty of $100,000 to the EPA and a $97,000 penalty to the U.S. Department of Labor. As part of the settlement, the company also agreed to process or dispose of approximately 10,000 drums, or 2.4 million pounds, of titanium and zirconium being stored at its New Cumberland and Weirton facilities by December.