Gas Meter in Connecticut Fatal Explosion to be Tested

May 13, 2010

A judge on Tuesday ordered police to let a federal safety board examine a battered gas detection meter salvaged from the site of a power plant explosion that killed six workers.

The unit, the equivalent of an airliner’s black box, was at the center of a dispute over which agencies could test its data microchip and whether civil lawsuits and a potential criminal case could be jeopardized if its whereabouts weren’t tightly controlled.

Middletown Superior Court Judge Robert Holzberg’s order requires the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to keep detailed records of who handles the unit and its data chip, what tests are conducted and how tampering will be prevented.

Then, the meter must be returned to Middletown police, who are working with state police to determine whether any individuals or entities should face criminal charges in the Kleen Energy Systems plant explosion on Feb. 7.

All sides agreed to the terms after hours of discussions Tuesday.

“I think the agreement that’s been reached with the parties today is appropriate, it’s fair, it’s reasonable,” the judge said.

The chemical safety board — along with police, prosecutors, corporate lawyers and attorneys for several workers — want to know whether the combustible gas detector’s data chip recorded gas levels, alarms and other information before the deadly explosion at the Middletown plant.

Middletown police handed over the unit Tuesday to an employee of the safety board, which had subpoenaed it. The employee was taking it to Washington, D.C., for examination, although all sides have said it might be too heavily damaged to yield any data.

The explosion occurred as employees for O&G Industries Inc. cleaned pipes in a procedure known as a gas blow, in which high levels of gas are forced through pipes to clear any debris.

Some workers have said they noticed an unusually strong smell just before the blast, which was heard and felt for miles around the under-construction 620-megawatt power plant.

The chemical safety board, which criticizes gas blows as inherently unsafe, wants to examine the meter as part of recommendations it’s drafting to urge companies to find other ways to clean industrial plant pipes.

Thomas Gerarde, an attorney for Middletown’s police, said their concern has been that they did not want to violate earlier court orders barring them from doing anything to move, dismantle or potentially damage critical evidence.

They also need to be able to account for every step of the meter’s travels in case of a criminal prosecution so whoever is liable for the deadly blast is held accountable, Gerarde and prosecutors said.

“We would just like a commitment that whoever touches this evidence in the chain of custody would be willing to come to Connecticut to testify in a criminal prosecution, should one develop,” Gerarde said.

Attorneys for Kleen Energy Systems and O&G Industries say they also want a say in the testing protocol, a chance to have their experts watch and assurances that any testing won’t damage the unit in case they need to do independent tests later.

Civil attorneys, too, want a role in the testing. Robert Reardon, one of four attorneys representing 10 injured and deceased workers, said they want their experts to participate in the testing in case it yields evidence important to their cases.

What sparked the blast has not been determined, though the safety board’s lead investigator has said there were several potential ignition sources nearby. He would not say what they were, but he said that in general natural gas can be sparked by anything from welders’ tools to electrical devices to static electricity.

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