The federal regulator in charge of workplace safety Thursday levied a fine of $16.6 million against the companies that were involved in the deadly natural gas explosion in February at the Kleen Energy Systems LLC power plant construction site in Middletown, CT.

"The millions of dollars in fines levied pale in comparison to the value of the six lives lost and numerous other lives disrupted," said Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis. "However, the fines and penalties reflect the gravity and severity of the deadly conditions created by the companies managing the work at the site." This is "one of the largest penalties" imposed by Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), following the fines brought against BP plc for the Texas City, TX, refinery blast in 2005.

David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, which investigated the explosion at the Kleen Energy construction site, said the agency is considering referring the case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.

The explosion occurred in early February during a gas blow operation in which flammable gas was being pumped under high pressure through new fuel gas lines to remove debris (see Daily GPI, Feb. 9). During the operation, natural gas "built to a high concentration" rather than being allowed to dissipate, Michaels said. Many safety precautions "were simply ignored," he noted. For example, workers were actually required to continue to weld during the gas blow process, which provided the ignition source. The explosion was felt more than 20 miles away.

"These employers blatantly disregarded well-known and accepted industry procedures and their own safety guidelines in conducting the gas blow operation in a manner that exposed workers to fire and explosion hazards," Michaels said.

The agency cited three construction companies and 14 site contractors for 371 alleged workplace violations. Specifically OSHA cited O&G Industries Inc., the project's general contractor; Keystone Construction and Maintenance Inc., which was in charge of the piping and oversaw the gas blow; and Bluewater Energy Services Inc., the commissioning and start-up contractor for the plan.

O&G has been fined $8.35 million for 119 willful, 17 serious and three other-than-serious citations; Keystone was fined $6.68 million for 94 willful, 16 serious and one other-than-serious citations; and Bluewater was penalized $896,000 for 12 willful and eight serious citations. Moreover, OSHA has cited 14 subcontractors for serious hazards and imposed penalties totaling $686,000. The companies can challenge the penalties, and Michaels said he expects them to do so.

The 620 MW Kleen Energy combined-cycle baseload plant had been expected to begin operation this summer. Michaels estimated that there are 125 power plants with natural gas turbines that are under construction or being planned nationwide. "OSHA is sending a strong warning letter to the operators and contractors involved in [these] projects, putting them on notice that using methane and natural gas flows is inherently dangerous," and that they must take all precautions to ensure worker safety, he said.

As a result of the blast at the Kleen Energy plant, OSHA said it will be issuing a warning letter to natural gas power plant operators regarding the dangerous practice of cleaning fuel gas piping using natural gas, and the need to ensure that safety procedures and practices are implemented to prevent these disasters in the future.

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