Saturday, November 21, 2009

Silver Eagle Refinery Explosion in Utah

There are many lessons to be learned from the catastrophic explosion at the Silver Eagle oil refinery in Salt Lake City. From a legal standpoint, it appears from published news accounts that the refinery violated several OSHA regulations.

OSHA's Process Safety Management Standard, or PSM (1), requires that a process that involves hazardous chemicals shall have inspection and tests performed (2), and such inspection and testing procedures shall follow "recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices" (RAGAGEP) (3). The owner shall also document the equipment design codes and standards employed for that equipment (4).

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is investigating the explosion, and has stated that the refinery's mechanical integrity program was inadequate (my paraphrase). It appears that the refinery contracted some aspects of the inspection and testing to others, who performed (among other things) wall thickness testing on pipes and vessels. However, the thickness testing yielded inaccurate results, as the cause of the explosion was a burst pipe with a wall thickness that was far below acceptable values. The pipe was too thin to hold the pressure, and burst. The subsequent release of hot hydrogen and hydrocarbons ignited and exploded.

The legal issues that could arise from this incident include (but are not limited to):

  • Breach of contract action by Silver Eagle against their mechanical integrity contractor
  • Suit for damages brought by injured homeowners against Silver Eagle
  • OSHA imposed fines against Silver Eagle for violation of 1910.119
  • Criminal actions against Silver Eagle, if the requisite degree of willfulness and culpability is established

(1) PSM is found at 29 CFR 1910.119 et seq.
(2) 1910.119(j)(4)(i)
(3) 1910.119(j)(4)(ii)
(4) 1910.119(d)(3)(i)(F)

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