The explosion occurred when the workers at Midland Resource Recovery were either cleaning or preparing to clean a tank used for storing mercaptan, according to local officials and a report phoned in to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Mercaptan is most commonly thought of as the rotten egg-smelling chemical that is added to odorless natural gas for safety purposes, so that leaks can easily be noticed. Midland Resource Recovery bills itself as “the leading natural gas odorization company in North America.”
The Chemical Safety Board, slated for elimination by the Trump budget, launched an investigation into the first incident (which will obviously continue into the second.) Scott Albertini, chief of McDonald Volunteer Fire Department, was killed in the most recent explosion. Albertini, 53, was a 35-year member of the volunteer fire department. He was married with two daughters and two grandchildren.
Midland, which bills itself as “is the leading natural gas odorization company in North America” is headquartered in Canada. Because natural gas is odorless and combustible, mercaptans must be added to the gas to warn of gas leaks. So when you accidentally leave the stove on, and smell gas, you’re not actually smelling the gas, you’re smelling the mercaptan which as been added to the gas. Mercaptans are highly flammable.
Midland also decommissions odorization tanks, which is apparently what was happening at the facility when both explosions occurred. Their website goes into some detail about the decommissioning process:
Midland Resource Recovery (MRR) is the North American pioneer in decommissioning odorant tanks. Since 1996, MRR has provided permanent and environmentally responsible solutions to remove and dispose of contaminated odorant equipment. The company enforces strict protocols to ensure the safe and incident-free removal of the tanks without the release of odorant during all phases of the process. To eliminate the threat of mercaptan release during transport, MRR uses airtight, leakproof containers. The containers are 24’ x 8’ x 8’ with top or rear-loading access and are equipped with E-Track systems to secure all transported equipment safely. At our processing facility in West Virgina, we use a thermo-chemical process to decontaminate the material.
The MRR process is entirely compliant with all regulations. (emphasis added)
I have no idea what the “thermo-chemical process is.” (Maybe someone can enlighten me) But it’s clear that whatever they’re doing is not “safe and incident free,” and probably is not “compliant with all regulations.”
What’s Going On?
A few observations.
First, this is obviously highly hazardous work and one would expect “the leading natural gas odorization company in North America” to know how to do it without killing people. And if they make a mistake and people die, one would think they’d figure out what happened and how to prevent it before resuming business.
Second, this is clearly a modern company with a webpage, a Facebook page, a YouTube Channel and a Twitter account. On none of those platforms has there been any mention — explanation, apology, expression of regret, mention of grieving family members — of either of these incidents.
Finally, if OSHA ends up issuing a willful violation for one or both of these incidents, the agency can criminally prosecute of this employer. I will withhold judgement until I see the outcome of the OSHA investigation, but it’s clear that employers should not be able to kill workers — and especially should not be able to kill workers twice in a month.