Tank in Blast That Killed 3 Not Inspected for More Than 10 Years

May 15, 2009

Three men killed when an empty gasoline storage tank exploded in north Arkansas likely died from the impact of the blast, a coroner said.

Federal safety officials have begun an investigation into the blast at the TEPPCO Partners LP facility near Searcy in earnest, trying to determine what killed the contract workers from Indiana. Meanwhile, Arkansas officials acknowledged the tank fell outside of any state oversight and last underwent an internal inspection by federal authorities more than a decade ago.

White County Coroner David Powell told The Associated Press that rescuers recovered the workers’ bodies outside of the crumpled storage tank after the explosion on the afternoon of May 12. Powell said the men’s bodies bore no signs of being scorched by flames.

“There was no indication of fire. It was an explosion,” Powell said. “The injuries were simply caused from the concussion of the explosion.”

All three men worked for C&C Welding of Elizabethtown, Ky. Powell identified the dead as William Decker, 48, of Scottsburg, Ind.; Roy Mathis, 60, of Wheatfield, Ind.; and Stoney Powell, 45, also of Wheatfield.

Powell said the workers’ bodies had been sent to the state Crime Laboratory in Little Rock for autopsies.

The TEPPCO facility, just east of U.S. 67, is one of nearly 20 such TEPPCO sites in Arkansas, said Rick Rainey, a spokesman for the Houston-based energy company. The facility stored diesel, jet fuel and unleaded gasoline for clients in five separate tanks. The tanks connect to a series of pipelines, allowing fuel to be sent to clients at their request, Rainey said.

The 67,000-barrel tank that exploded had been drained of gasoline and cleaned before Tuesday, Rainey said. Company officials also entered the tank with equipment to detect the level of flammable gas still in the air and found it safe enough to be worked on, he said.

“Everything was basically in order before the contractors began the work,” Rainey said. The contractors were on the tank’s floating roof when the explosion occurred, he said.

Rainey said company officials were cooperating with inspectors from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Elizabeth Todd, a Dallas-based spokeswoman with OSHA, said investigators had six months to complete a report about the deaths. Todd declined to comment further about the investigation, though federal records indicate OSHA inspectors never cited the facility before.

The U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulated the facility, said spokesman Damon Hill. Investigators last performed an internal inspection of the tank in 1998 and conducted an external inspection in 2008, Hill said.

Hill said he did not have immediate access to reports about what investigators found during those inspections.

At the state level, however, the tank escaped scrutiny from authorities. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality only checked what hazardous materials or air pollution the facility gave off, while the state’s Oil and Gas Commission only regulates well sites and drilling equipment.

The state fire marshal, a trooper with the Arkansas State Police, oversees such tanks only if they were built after 1992, said agency spokesman Bill Sadler. The fire marshal has no secretary or support staff, but did travel to the explosion site to inspect the tank after the blast, Sadler said.

The tank “predates the statute that would bring him into the investigation,” Sadler said.

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said the governor didn’t have enough information now to decide whether to push legislators to change laws governing tank inspection.

“It’s too early now to know if regulation would have even made a difference,” DeCample said.

On the Net: TEPPCO Partners LP: www.teppco.com/

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