It’s been three weeks since the deadly explosion at the Jacksonville, Florida T2 laboratory which claimed the lives of four workers and injured others on and off the site.  The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), along with OSHA and other agencies, is investigating the disaster and lead CSB official, Robert Hall, offered the following information on Jan 3 about the event:

“The blast at T2 was among the most powerful ever examined by the CSB.”

“…There are several steps in the process [of producing the gasoline additive MMT]; the first step involved heating and reacting organic materials with metallic sodium.  It was during this step the [batch] reactor ruptured.  Prior to the rupture, eyewitnesses reported hearing loud hissing, seeing vapor venting, which indicates the development of excess temperature and pressure inside the reactor.”

“Following the rupture of the reactor, its flammable contents mixed with air and ignited, releasing large amounts of thermal energy as seen on the U.S. Coast Guard infrared video released last week.  [CG video here]  The reactor was designed for high pressure and had steel walls 3 inches thick.  Under normal temperatures and conditions, it would require a pressure of several thousand pounds per square inch to rupture this vessel.”

“We recovered large portions of the vessel’s top head—weighing hundreds of pounds—approximately one quarter-mile away.  This gives an idea of the tremendous power of the explosion.” (emphasis added)

Investigator Hall reported that the accident scene is still too hazardous for investigators to enter, but offered for the victims’ families, co-workers and the community an outline of the CSB’s work:

“The CSB team plans to conduct reactive chemistry testing using T2’s recipe to better understand exactly what went wrong inside the reactor…  The laboratory testing will measure the amount of heat and pressure generated should the reaction run out-of-control…”

“We plan to do a comprehensive examination of T2’s safety practices…”

“The CSB continues to survey the businesses on Faye and Blasius Roads documenting blast damage, indentifying injuries and collecting security camera videos.  …[we] continue to find debris from the explosion as far as one mile from the explosion site.  This debris is being collected and catalogued for future analysis.”

“We have brought in a blast-modeling team that is measuring the exact nature and extent of the blast damage.  …We also anticipate doing a metallurgical examination of the reactor fragments to better understand exactly what happened dudring the final few minutes before the explosion.”

“Due to the magnitude of this accident, we expect a lengthy field investigation and the team will remain in Jacksonville for at least the next several weeks.”

I commend Investigator Hall and the CSB team for providing this update, which was then picked-up by the Jacksonville press, reminding the broader community of the severity of this incident.   It makes me wonder, however, whether the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection or Department of Health are involved in their own post-disaster assessment of airborne exposure or settled contaminants.  Are there any federal or state agencies looking at these kinds of questions?

  • Had there been releases of methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MMT) or other hazardous agents from the T2 plant into the community in the months preceding this explosion?
  • Was there a significant release of MMT immediately prior to the explosion?
  • What happens to MMT when it burns and what other contaminants or building materials were set ablaze after the explosion?  Where did the plume of smoke travel?
  • Are there any EPA air monitoring stations near the T2 site which may have recorded hazardous air pollutants?
  • Can the fire ash or other settled dust be collected and analyzed to determine if it contains hazardous agents?

I appreciate the work that the CSB, OSHA and other investigators are doing to determine the cause of the explosion.  I just wonder whether another part of the investigation—the potential health impact on individuals working elsewhere in the industrial complex or in nearby businesses.  Which agency is supposed to look at those kind of issues?

(Using Google Earth I could see the industrial complex, as well as several quarries or construction projects in the vicinity.  There were also a few houses near a man-made lake in the general area of the industrial park, but it was difficult to know in what direction the smoke plume traveled or whether the photo was current enough to show recent commercial or residential development.)