Fire Reported At Kleen Energy Power Plant In Middletown

By David Owens, Hartford Courant

MIDDLETOWN — Firefighters are working to snuff out the last remnants of a fire that began in a turbine at the Kleen Energy power plant Wednesday morning.

The fire was in “turbine 1″ at the plant at 1439 River Road, Middletown Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said.

It took firefighters about 90 minutes to finally control the fire, Santostefano said.

The turbines are powered by natural gas or fuel oil, he said. The fire was substantially out about 9 a.m.

The fire was fueled by oil that is used to cool the turbine. The cooling oil leaked and was ignited by the heat in the area, Santostefano said.

“Natural gas that feeds the turbine had nothing to do with the fire,” Santostefano said. “Coolant leaked out, got hot and ignited.” As much as 1,000 gallons of oil leaked, officials said.

Firefighters used foam to smother the fire and had to ask for more foam to be brought to the scene. New Haven sent a foam unit to assist.

Firefighters were removing insulation around the turbine and its housing to reach the last bits of fire, South District Fire Chief Robert Ross said. Damage was limited to the area immediately around the turbine.

The power plant remains operational with the second turbine still generating power, he said.

The fire was discovered about 7:30 a.m. when an employee checking an alarm found the fire and called 911, Ross said.

Middletown Mayor Daniel Drew said the fire may have been caused by a malfunction in a cooling oil pump.

Drew said firefighters will likely be working at the plant through the rest of Wednesday.

Kim Inglis, who lives near the Kleen Energy plant, said she was walking her dog about 7:30 a.m. when she noticed a lot more smoke than usual coming from the plant.

“I walked to the top of the hill, and there was smoke billowing out everywhere. I could smell it and taste it,” Inglis said. But since there were no fire trucks or sirens, she said she did not think anything was wrong.

Inglis said the smoke “seemed beyond the normal” amount that the plant generates. Kleen Energy officials are supposed to notify neighbors if there is an emergency at the plant, but Inglis said she found out there was a fire at the plant when co-workers called after seeing news reports.

Kleen Energy officials sent a text at 8:52 a.m. reporting the fire.

“Even if they think the fire is contained, you’d think after all we have been through they would have notified us right away,” she said.

An explosion at the Kleen Energy site killed six workers on Feb. 7, 2010, while workers were using pressurized natural gas to blow debris out of pipes in preparation for making the nearly completed plant operational. The highly flammable gas ignited, creating a horrific explosion that could be heard 40 miles away.

The turbines at the Kleen Energy plant survived the massive explosion because they are encased in concrete to protect them. The turbines that were on site the day of the explosion are still in use at the plant.

While the concrete means the turbines are protected, it also makes it difficult for firefighters to access a fire in the turbine.

After the explosion, federal investigators found hundreds of violations at the site and issued $16.6 million in penalties against more than a dozen companies — the third-largest workplace-safety fine in the nation’s history.

“The millions of dollars in fines levied pale in comparison to the value of the six lives lost and numerous other lives disrupted,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said at the time. “However, the fines and penalties reflect the gravity and severity of the deadly conditions created by the companies managing the work at the site.”

But in the years since the blast, the federal government agreed to deals that will wipe out as much as 88 percent of the fines levied against the companies that it determined bore responsibility for the explosion, a Courant review of documents related to the case revealed.

Government regulators also rejected calls for an outright ban on the use of flammable gas to clean out pipes — called “gas blows” — dismissing a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and creating a scenario described by the board’s lead Kleen Energy investigator as a “disaster waiting to happen.”

Instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is banking on compliance with new industry guidelines that include safer alternatives for pipe-purging. In 49 states, that compliance is voluntary; as the fourth anniversary of the blast passed, no state has acted to ban gas blows except Connecticut.

The six workers who died that day were Peter Chepulis, Ronald Crabb, Raymond Dobratz, Kenneth Haskell, Roy Rushton and Chris Walters. Fifty more were injured.

OSHA fined 17 companies that it said had “blatantly disregarded” industry standards, with the largest penalty assessed against general contractor O&G Industries of Torrington. The deadly blast also focused national attention on the risky practice of using flammable gas to clear pipes.

Although there is no exact way to know, OSHA officials are convinced that the practice has been abandoned, and no similar accidents have occurred at gas plants since. But that gives little comfort to officials with the Chemical Safety Board, whose lead investigator on the Kleen Energy explosion is not as sure that the practice has been halted.

“We think that gas blows is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Donald Holmstrom.

“As we know from major accidents, they tend to be high-consequence, low-frequency events,” he said. “We can’t say that the problem has gone away because you’re continuing the high-hazard activity and it just hasn’t blown up yet. That’s not evidence of success, unfortunately.”

Many of the workers on site the day of the explosion filed lawsuits. A court-appointed mediator negotiated settlements for many of the lawsuits. Five of the six families of the men who were killed settled for between $1.7 million and $2.4 million, records show.

The family of Raymond Dobratz has not settled, one of 24 cases still pending in Hartford Superior Court. O&G’s attorneys’ have filed a motion for a summary judgment, arguing that it is immune to the lawsuits because of workers’ compensation laws.

If the cases survive summary judgment, they could go to trial this spring.

Many of the workers on site the day of the explosion filed lawsuits. A court-appointed mediator negotiated settlements for many of the lawsuits. Five of the six families of the men who were killed settled for between $1.7 million and $2.4 million, records show.

The family of Raymond Dobratz has not settled — one of 24 cases still pending in Hartford Superior Court. O&G’s attorneys’ have filed a motion for a summary judgment, arguing that it is immune to the lawsuits because of workers’ compensation laws.

If the cases survive summary judgment, they could go to trial this spring.

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