Closing the Gap
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2011
The explosion at the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown, Connecticut in February 2010 was one of the worst workplace accidents to occur in the United States in recent years. A gas-blowing operation to clean debris from pipes led to an explosion and fire that killed six people and injured about 50 others.
In the aftermath, investigators, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), determined that there was no safety standard governing the operation that caused this catastrophe. In its report, the CSB recommended the development of a standard to prevent such explosions from happening again.
NFPA was the only organization that stepped up to close this dangerous gap in standards dealing with natural gas. Because it was believed that the gas-blow procedure was used in many other plants around the country, NFPA and safety officials at the federal, state, and local levels felt that time was of the essence in the development of the standard. Our regulations permit the development of standards through an expedited process if there is an urgent need to do so. We worked with CSB to get its views on what should be covered in the standard. The Standards Council quickly authorized the project and appointed the Technical Committee, which got to work in the spring of 2011.
The document was issued this summer as NFPA 56 (PS), Fire and Explosion Prevention During Cleaning and Purging of Flammable Gas Piping Systems. The document will remain a provisional standard until it goes through the normal approval cycle, according to American National Standards Institute rules, but it has the full effect of any other NFPA standard and is already in use by the industry.
Our experience responding to the Kleen Energy explosion shows how important it is to maintain a close alliance between public agencies responsible for safety and private organizations like NFPA that develop codes and standards. The Chemical Safety Board, through its investigation, was able to identify a potentially lethal practice that was widespread in the industry. Any governmental agency that tried to develop its own regulation would have taken years to get the job done because of resource constraints, bureaucratic delay, and the legal requirement under the Administrative Procedures Act. It can also be difficult for governmental agencies to call upon the broad range of experts that participate in the NFPA process. The federal government recognizes these constraints, and for the past three decades there has been a federal policy encouraging federal agencies to rely as much as they reasonably can on private standards developers.
NFPA 56 (PS) closes a dangerous gap in the standards that protect the lives and safety of thousands of workers. Because we were able to bring together the right experts who were committed to moving quickly, that gap took months rather than years to close. When we announced the issuance of the standard, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the CSB, said he was pleased that NFPA had made the CSB’s fuel gas safety recommendations a high priority, and applauded our "quick and effective action" after the Kleen Energy tragedy. It is gratifying to hear such praise for NFPA from an important federal safety agency.
But the words that really struck home were those by Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, who represents Middletown. She said, "We owe it to the men who perished that terrible day to make the tragedy in Middletown the very last one of its kind."