Japanese company announces $92 million settlement with workers injured in May 2018 plant fire in Texas
Japanese chemical manufacturer Kuraray announced last week that its U.S. subsidiary, Kuraray America, has reached a $92 million settlement with workers injured in May 2018 when more than 2,000 pounds of escaping ethylene gas ignited at a plant near Pasadena, TX.
More than 160 contract workers and others filed several civil lawsuits against Kuraray seeking damages due to physical and mental injury. The settlement in this case was to a lawsuit filed in Japanese circuit court.
“As a result of discussions with some plantiffs, including those who suffered the most damage, we reached a basic agreement on settlement in order to resolve the lawsuit quickly,” the Kuraray press release states.
According to a preliminary report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board workers at the Kuraray America KVAL chemical production facility in Texas were preparing for startup activities after site-wide routine maintenance. At the time of the incident, 266 employees and contract workers were onsite.
During pre-startup pressure-testing activities involving a chemical reactor, an abnormal high-pressure condition occurred and more than 2,000 pounds of ethylene gas was released from a pressure relief valve, the CSB report states.
Twenty-one injured workers were transported to off-site medical facilities for treatment of burns and fall injuries, the report states. One contract worker remained in critical condition for several days from life-threatening burns.
Owing largely to the settlement, Kuraray says it will post a loss of nearly $130 million for the third quarter of the current fiscal year. The settlement covers damages to 13 plaintiffs, some of whom suffered the worst injuries in the accident, the press release states.
Production lines at EVAL involved a pressurized chemical reactor that used ethylene in its polymerization process, the CSB preliminary report states. Two cooling systems are used to control the heat from the polymerization reaction – a reactor jacket that uses cooling water and a reactor cooler system that uses a refrigerated solution of water and methanol referred to as brine.
In April 2018 a new brine refrigeration compressor was installed at EVAL to allow the switch of an existing ammonia-based system to one utilizing Freon. Personnel circulated refrigerated brine through the reactor coolers prior to startup because the installation layout of the new compressor differed from the replaced ammonia-based compressor, the CSB states.
“By normal startup practice, brine is not circulated through the reactor coolers until the reactor startup sequence is completed and the reactor is in normal operation mode,” the report states.
On May 18, as preparation to start the production line, personnel used ethylene gas to pressure test the chemical reactor. Eleven hours before the fire, the low temperature conditions in the reactor coolers began condensing the ethylene gas into a liquid.
“During this time, the reactor temperature began to decrease as liquid ethylene accumulated inside,” the report states.
On the morning of May 19, the day shift discovered the low reactor temperature and acted to stop brine from circulating through the reactor cooler. Operations staff began to warm the reactor contents by circulating steam-heated water through the reactor coolers and the reactor jacket.
“Closing the brine valves and adding heat to the reactor jacket began vaporizing the ethylene liquid in the reactor, increasing both the reactor temperature and pressure,” the CSB states. “Over the next three and one-half hours, Kuraray operators made a number of process adjustments, but at 10:28 a.m. the reactor pressure relief system activated.”
Drifting across an adjacent road, the escaping vapor encountered a welding machine in use in the back of a pickup truck, the CSB states. The flash fire that resulted sent flames propagating back through the vapor to the relief valve source and turning it into a burning gas jet.
“The fire burned for just short of three minutes, until enough vapor was released to reduce the reactor pressure, allowing the spring-loaded pressure relief valve to close,” the report states. Meanwhile, workers involved in a variety of activities suffered burns and fall injuries trying to escape.