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Causes of Refinery and Plant Explosions

Anyone who has visited the Gulf Coastal States has seen those collections of buildings and towers known as “refineries” or “chemical plants.” While, at first glance, you might be tempted to say something along the line of “Seen one and you’ve seen them all,” when you pause to realize that each such facility represents an investment of 10’s of millions of dollars, you begin to understand how vital these plants are to the national economy.

As long as things are going smoothly, we tend to take such chemical plants and refineries for granted. On occasion, we might notice an unusual odor on a particularly humid morning or have to deal with the comings and goings of large trucks or wait for an unusually long railroad train to pass. If we grew up in the area, we long ago learned to “just live with it” and go about our daily affairs. But what if something “goes wrong” and things at “the plant” threaten not only the local environment but the lives of our neighbors and the health of our children?

Rather than attempt to describe every conceivable chemical plant or refinery emergency, we will instead focus our attention on what may cause an explosion at a refinery or a chemical plant regardless of its raw materials or end-products.

According to the plant and refinery accident injury lawyer at the Doan Law Firm, the majority of refinery and chemical plant explosions are due to one of four general causes:

  • Impure or “dirty” chemicals
  • Improperly maintained equipment
  • Improperly stored precursor and end-products
  • Human error by poorly-trained employees

Impure or “dirty” chemicals

Modern refineries and chemical plants are set up to use substances of high purity. The necessary purity is obtained by “cleaning” or “scrubbing” impurities by use of various chemical and/or physical processes. Should impurities remain, they can contaminate the refining or manufacturing process and lead to a defective product. In some cases, “dirty” chemicals may set off a chain of events that can lead to a fire or an explosion.

Improperly maintained equipment

The equipment used in chemical plants and refineries is designed to operate efficiently only at a predetermined conditions such as internal temperature and pressure and such equipment must be kept as clean as possible and/or recalibrated periodically. Since taking equipment “offline” for routine maintenance can disrupt a plant’s production schedule, some chemical manufacturers may not follow the equipment’s recommended maintenance and calibration schedule. If an explosion of fire occurs at or near such equipment, the first thing that investigators will check are its maintenance and cleaning records.

Improperly stored precursors and end-products

A “precursor” is a substance that, when it reacts with another substance or is subjected to a chemical or mechanical process, is transformed into an “end-product” (a substance having an economic value). As an example, consider how crude oil (the precursor) can be refined into gasoline (the end-product) and other substances that themselves may be precursors to other products.

Since many precursors can become chemically unstable if stored in the wrong type of container, too warm or humid an environment, or if exposed to vapors given off by other substances, various federal and state agencies have established strict regulations regarding how chemicals are stored. An explosion or a fire involving one of these substances occurs, it may be taken as a sign that chemical safety regulations we not observed.

Human error by poorly-trained employees

Even though more and more chemical plants are moving toward greater use of computers and robotics, human employees must monitor each stage of the manufacturing process. In many cases, these employees are trained “on the job” to perform a specific task or a series of tasks and know very little about what goes on in other sections of the plant. In the event of an accident or some other critical incident such as a fire or a chemical leak, poorly-trained employees can be more of a hinderance than an asset.

Contacting a chemical plant or refinery accident lawyer

Chemical plant and refinery fires and/or explosions are relatively rare events. In some cases, factors beyond human control (weather, earthquakes, or wildfires) have led to accidents or chemical spills. Most plant and refinery accidents, however, are due to human error and negligence.

If you, or a family member, have been injured in a chemical plant / refinery accident, we invite you to contact the Houston chemical plant explosion lawyer at the Doan Law Firm to arrange a free, no obligation, review of your injury case and to explore the legal options that may be available to you.

At the Doan Law Firm, we know that an accidental injury or death can be devastating, both emotionally and financially. That is why our firm is always willing to assume full responsibility for all aspects of preparing your case for trial in exchange for a previously agreed-upon percentage of the final settlement that we will win for you.

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