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State investigators: Carbide Industries ran furnace in explosion decades past projected life expectancy

by Terry Boyd

(Editor’s note: At 159 pages, the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health report on the Carbide Industries explosion is far too comprehensive and detailed to cover in one post. However, email: terry@insiderlouisville.com, and we’ll send you a .pdf copy of the investigation/inspection report.)

Next month, Mayor Greg Fischer, GLI executives and Kentucky state officials likely will gather to mark a great economic-development coup – the reopening of the Carbide Industries plant in Rubbertown with the help of state tax incentives/abatements.

They’ll celebrate Carbide Industry executives as great corporate citizens who elected – after overcoming great “challenges” including a fatal explosion – to reopen a shattered 1940s-era plant and save 160 jobs.

It’s unlikely they’ll talk about this inconvenient truth:

A Kentucky Labor Cabinet/Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health report dated September, 12, 2011 on Carbide Industries documents years of neglect before the furnance exploded on March 21, 2011, killing employees Steve Nichols and Jorge Medina.

Last May, we documented via state records Carbide Industries’s history of nearly constant calamities, with little in the way of state oversight or penalities.

The report on the Carbide Industries explosion includes evidence the furnace was long past the time it could be used safely in what is inherently a dangerous operation – making calcium carbide by heating quick lime and coke at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in order to make explosive acetylene gas used in welding.

The plant’s largely unmaintained furnace ran 24 hours per day, seven days per week for three times longer than its projected life expectancy, according to KyOSH inspectors.

Through its 40-plus year lifetime, the furnace was rebuilt first after five years, then after seven years, according to documents.

And that was it, according to the report:

The furnace was then run for about 29 years until it was involved in the fatal explosions on March 21, 2011 without a rebuild. When asked what the life expectancy of this type of … furnace is, the Engineering Project Manager stated that he could not speak with any expertise and added that with respect to an electric arc furnace … “We tend to tell people the typical life is about 10 years if you took an average, I guess.”

The furnace, furnace building plan and mechanical drawings date to between May 1968 and June 1969. The furnace was orginally constructed about 1968, according to the report.

The report documents myriad problems with the aging facility and furnace leading up to the explosion.

  • The furnace had a broken cooling system, which hadn’t even been in place since 2001.
  • Crucial pieces that both protected workers and kept the plant from blowing up were allowed to completely disintegrate, according to the report.
  • The furnace was plagued by water leaks, which had the potential of causing gas buildups to the point there were frequent smaller explosions. “If the causes are not identifed and the probems coreected, the pressure may build sufficiently to affect a greater explosion in the furnace,” stated the investigation.
  • Such smaller explosions had occured the day of the explosion, according to the report.
  • Though the furnace was shut down annually for repairs, some crucial repairs were never made. Carbide Industry executives told investigators that essentially, the furnace was run until water leaks “became so frequent and difficult to manage that the cover had to be replaced.”
  • The report states that employees were completely unaware of the purpose of three large maintenance doors: At the time of this inspection, the Maintenance Doors were not known or referred to by employees as maintenance doors. The common name(s) for the maintenance doors by employees on site was “Blow Off Doors” or “Blow Out Doors.” When asked why they were referred to by these names, interviewees indicated that they were called this because that is what they do. Employee interviews indicated that this was the purpose of the door (SIC) was believed to be and that employees were unfamiliar with the name Maintenance Door.
We called Carbide Industries executives repeatedly for comment, but no one responded to our calls.

If nothing else, the state investigation and resulting fines show exactly how cheap life is in Kentucky in 2012.

The two men killed are referred to only as “the Furnace Lead” and “the Furnace Operator” in the report. But  actually do have names: Steve Nichols and Jorge ”Louie” Medina.

In the case of Carbide Industries, the fines for killing them work out to $72,800 – $36,400 per employee.

The investigation found that 19 employees, a furnace manager and a furnace supervisor were in the furnace area when it exploded.

State regulators have cited the company for three violations:

  • Citation 1 was “Willful, SERIOUS.” Essentially, Carbide Industries was ordered to come up with a plan to fix the problems including placing the furnace control room at a satellite location outside the 5-story furnace building “to remove (employees) from the immediate danger zone when not required to be on the Operation Level (Level 2) of the furnace building.” That finding included a $56,000 fine, which the company is challenging.
  • Citation 2 was “serious,” but essentially is a citation for employees not follwing an emergence response plan. OSHA investigators found emergency response team members entered  the furnace building, which has a Cardox Halon fire supression system, without breathing apparatuses. The Cardox system extinguishes  fires using carbon dioxide gas. The EHS manager also stated the emergency response team members had not trained to prepare for a furnace explosion.

The fine for this violation is $5,600. Oddly, Carbide Industries got dinged three times for this offense, for a total of $16,800 of the $72,800 total fine.

A bargain at twice the price when the final bill includes a giant gift on the credit side of the ledger – a $6.5 million tax rebate Kentucky has tentatively approved, part of the estimated $30 million rebuild.

So, the question becomes, “Does the KyOSHA finding that Carbide Industries executives are responsible for a fatal disaster disqualify them for state economic incentive packages that would reconstruct the plant they destroyed through negligence?”

We asked that question today, but got no reply from Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority officials.

We asked that question first back last year, and here is the answer.

Carbide Industries met the requirements of the Kentucky Industrial Revitalization Act (KIRA), for which it received preliminary approval by KEDFA on June 30.  KIRA is designed to assist manufacturing or agribusiness operations that are in imminent danger of permanently closing.  The incentive is tied to the company’s ability to rebuild the facility and maintain its employment base in Louisville.

There is no mention of activities or findings that might disqualify an applicant.

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