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Hancock plant resolves violations over fatal 2010 fire

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators have agreed to separate settlements that resolve workplace safety and environmental violations at a Hancock County metals recycling plant after three workers died in an explosion and fire three years ago this month.

AL Solutions, which operated the facility at New Cumberland, will pay $100,000 in fines to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and $97,000 to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

EPA announced both settlements in a Thursday afternoon press release, after the EPA deal, which requires judicial approval, was filed in U.S. District Court in Wheeling.

Federal officials said that AL Solutions also agreed to "implement extensive, company-wide safeguards to prevent future accidental releases of hazardous chemicals form its facilities," at a cost EPA estimated at $7.8 million.

"Modern technology is making it easier to assess potential hazards and prevent disasters before they happen," said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

"Facilities that handle extremely hazardous substances should be using these tools to protect their workers and those in surrounding communities," Giles said. "Today's settlement makes this a requirement for AL Solutions, and we hope others take it upon themselves to do the right thing."

AL Solutions officials could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

In its New Cumberland facility, AL Solutions processed titanium and zirconium, using what it called a "proprietary technology" to recycle these metals into "high-quality alloying additions to aluminum."

At about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2010, brothers Jeffrey Scott Fish, 39, and James E. Fish, 38, and Steven Swain, 27, were working inside a reinforced concrete building where the recycling process is located. An explosion ripped through the building. The Fish brothers died at the scene, and Swain died later at a Pittsburgh hospital.

After the deaths, OSHA inspectors issued citations for one willful violation, 16 serious violations and one other-than-serious violation -- and fines of $154,000.

Among other things, OSHA inspectors alleged the facility had the wrong type of sprinkler system, was not equipped with a system to limit pressure buildup during the blending and pressing of metals, and included an inadequate gas monitoring system.

AL Solutions appealed those citations and previously settled part of the case with OSHA.

Agency spokeswoman Joanna Hawkins said Thursday that a second settlement reached recently makes the total in penalties AL Solution will pay $97,000, or about 37 percent less than the initial fine.

Complete details of the OSHA settlement were not immediately available, but Hawkins said it "requires expanded abatement measures that are consistent with the safeguards in EPA's settlement to provide ongoing worker protection at the company's four facilities."

"These measures require adequate fire detection systems, process hazard analyses for production areas, regular safety and health inspections, and restrictions on stockpiling combustible materials," Hawkins said in an email to The Charleston Gazette.

EPA said that earlier this year, AL Solutions opened a new, automated facility in Burgettstown, Pa., which includes "modern technology to safeguard employees and reduce exposure to hazardous metallic dust."

Among other requirements, AL Solutions must use advanced monitoring technology, including hydrogen monitoring and infrared cameras, to assess hazardous chemical storage areas to prevent fires and explosions. The company must also process or dispose of approximately 10,000 drums of titanium and zirconium, or 2.4 million pounds, being stored at facilities in New Cumberland and Weirton by December 2014 to reduce the risk of fire and explosion, EPA said.

The $100,000 EPA fine is the result of federal environmental inspections conducted at the New Cumberland facility and another AL Solutions site in Washington, Mo., after the fatal fire in West Virginia. At the Washington facility, EPA inspectors said they found evidence of previous fires, burned insulation, fire-affected wiring, and titanium sludge covering large areas of the floor.

EPA alleged that AL Solutions violated the "general duty" clause of the federal Clean Air Act and failed to conduct an analysis of the hazards of its facility or take steps to reduce those hazards.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has blamed the AL Solutions explosion and fire on a buildup of metals dust in the facility, and cited the deaths in New Cumberland as another example of the dangers of "combustible dust" in a variety of industrial settings. The CSB has repeatedly urged OSHA to write nationwide rules for the control of explosive dust, but the Obama administration has repeatedly delayed any such action.

The CSB, though, has still not issued a detailed public report on what it found at AL Solutions. The agency said Thursday it has completed a draft report that is being reviewed internally. A public release is planned for sometime next year, the CSB said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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