The incident happened at around 10:30am on Saturday (May 19) when one of the plant’s reactors allegedly leaked ethylene, a highly flammable gas used to make different types of plastics.
Packaging that extends shelf life
The leaked ethylene then caused an explosion and a flash fire that sent 21 workers to hospital with burns and other injuries. Out of the 21 people 18 have since been released.
At the time of the incident, 266 employees and contract personnel were onsite as part of a turnaround with heavy maintenance activities.
Kuraray America is a subsidiary of the Toyko-based specialty chemical maker. The facility manufactures ethylene vinyl-alcohol copolymers, sold as EVAL.
EVAL's barrier properties ensure the flavor and quality of food are preserved for an extended period of time for example, shredded cheese, beverages, soups. It also keeps the Modified Atmosphere and aromas inside the package, extending the shelf life of fresh food and protects against odours and contamination like MOSH/MOAH.
Eric Bass, plant manager, EVAL Kuraray America, said in statement the company is committed to understanding what caused the incident and is taking steps to prevent a recurrence.
“Preliminary indications are that the fire was caused by a release of ethylene from a polymerization reactor that found an ignition source,” he said.
“The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) are on site and investigating the incident. We are cooperating fully with these investigations.
“On behalf of Kuraray America we send our thoughts and prayers to those who were injured and impacted by the incident.”
The CSB is an independent, non-regulatory federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical incidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.
The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA.
YouTube video credit: Edward Ross
On Sunday, Houston attorney Anthony Buzbee filed a $1m lawsuit against Kuraray on behalf of Eduardo Rodriguez, a badly burned worker who allegedly jumped 25 feet from a scaffold during the blaze. The suit accuses Kuraray of gross negligence and failing to maintain a safe work environment.
Chris Leavitt, an attorney on the case, said his client was released from the hospital Sunday, but was readmitted for further burns treatment on his back, arms and legs. He also sustained injuries after allegedly leaping from the flaming scaffold.
The firm is representing six other workers.
Chemical Safety Board investigations
Four investigators with the Chemical Safety Board arrived at the plant over the weekend. Agency spokesman Tom Zoeller said they will remain on site for the several weeks to gather evidence and interview witnesses.
The investigation is expected to take a year to complete.
OSHA is conducting a parallel investigation. Spokeswoman Chauntra Rideaux said the agency will release further details once it’s complete.
Kuraray’s EVAL plant opened in 1986 to produce ethylene vinyl alcohol, a chemical used in food packaging. The plant is now the world’s largest of that type, capable of producing 47,000 tons annually.
The company is expanding the plant to produce 58,000 tons a year, a project expected to be completed in the coming months.
All those injured are adult men who work in the maintenance department of Kuraray and most of the injuries were topical burns, injured backs and knees from running away from the explosion.
Kuraray acquired MonoSol in 2012, a manufacturer of water-soluble polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) films to expand its Vinyl Acetate Chemical Chain Business to a wider range of industrial applications.