Industrial Firefighting

Violent Explosion Rocks Mediterranean Coastal City of Tarragona

Spain explosion
Smoke rises following a big explosion at an industrial hub near the port city of Tarragona, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. A chemical emergency alert has been activated in northeastern Spain following a big explosion in an industrial zone near the port city of Tarragona, regional emergency services said Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Oliete)

By George H. Potter

Tarragona is a major international seaport on the Mediterranean Sea coast of Spain, 60 miles southwest of Barcelona. The city is surrounded by several industrial parks, two of which have several major chemical and petrochemical plants. One of these, the CANONJA Industrial Park, situated just three miles southwest of the city’s center, is the largest industrial conglomerate in Southern Europe, and the combined chemical production of this particular park is 25 percent of Spain’s total.

The Incident

Just past 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 14, 2020, an explosion in an ethylene oxide reactor shook the entire park, much of Tarragona, and the surrounding area, and was in fact registered some 50 miles away. The affected plant was Industrias Químicas del Óxido de Etyleno (IQOXE), a major producer of ethylene oxide and propylene, among other very flammable products. Immediate response was made by the plant´s internal emergency response teams, an industrial emergency response crew of the industrial park, and the Tarragona municipal fire brigade. The magnitude of the subsequent fires required response by numerous surrounding fire brigades, which brought the eventual overall response of nearly 100 professional and industrial firefighters from 30 public and industrial fire services. Some of these responders were dispatched from stations many miles away in the neighboring province of Barcelona.

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Damage within the plant was extensive due to the initial explosion and the resulting fires was extensive. The expanding pressure of the explosion threw numerous pieces of structures hundreds of yards from the explosion site. One of which these objects, a 400-pound part of the reactor’s lid, flew almost two miles and impacted into the exterior wall of an apartment building, causing structural failure that killed an occupant of the home below the impact point. Another victim died in the explosion and a third victim died due to extensive burns.

Postincident declarations made by several people, some former employees of IQOXE, emphasized the fact that during the past year the company had received at least four sanctions for violations and irregularities resulting from work-place safety inspections.

This industrial park, as well as the North Industrial Park some 10 miles north, have some 30 industries that are required to comply with the very strict safety requirements of the SEVESO Directives. These regulations, applicable throughout the European Union were conceived as results of the post-incident investigations after the fire and explosion in a small chemical plant located in the Italian village, Seveso, some 12 miles north of Milan, in July, 1976.

The Origin of SEVESO Directives

This fire released a significant quantity of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorobenceno-p-dioxin, also known as TCDD, a primary component of Agent Orange, the defoliation agent used extensively during the Vietnam War. According to the subsequent investigations, the amount of toxic vapors was the greatest affecting populated areas, Seveso and several surrounding towns, which had a total population of more than 86,000. While there were no human fatalities resulting from the fire nor the vapor release, thousands of animals in the area died. Among the long-term effects to humans were moderate increases in certain rare cancers, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and diabetes.

What these investigations also revealed was a widespread laxness regarding overall industrial safety issues and practices. As a result, the SEVESO I Directive stipulating much more rigid industrial safety obligations was crafted in 1982. The directive established criteria for in-depth emergency response procedures and the creation of adequately trained and equipped emergency response personnel. This was followed in 2008 by the significantly updated SEVESO II Directive, which again was revised and updated in 2012. It is quite likely that a SEVESO IV Directive update may be forthcoming in the not too distant future.

Public Fire Protection in Spain and Catalonia

Professional fire protection in Spain is a multifaceted conglomeration of various municipal and/or regional public fire brigades, some privately organized brigades covering certain specific areas, companies serving a multitude of industries and industrial complexes (petrochemical plants, nuclear facilities, and similar activities), and civil aviation brigades. The nation’s military emergency units (UME), composed of troops and officers, often assist the public services in major emergencies. Although material resources are generally up to accepted standards, human resources are far below what are generally considered as adequate. What is widely considered as a “normal” ratio of one firefighter per 1,000 population is very distant from Spain’s ratio of 1:2,300. Many medium-size local fire services cannot meet the minimum staffing requirements for operations in fire emergencies as described in National Fire Protection Association 1700, Guide for Structural Fire Fighting. In fact, some regions are extremely under-protected with very few fire stations; there are at least three provinces with only one public, full-time professionally staffed fire station. There are several regions that have local volunteer fire brigades in rural areas, mostly situated in towns from where they can “protect” surrounding areas. However, it’s rare for these volunteer entities to have adequate equipment and training.

The overall response of some 100 firefighters and officers to the Tarragona incident demonstrated the mobilization capacity of the Catalonian regional fire service. This region or autonomous community located in the Northeastern corner of Spain is composed of four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. The capital of the region is Barcelona, which itself has a major international seaport, several important industrial parks, and one of the nation’s most important international airports. The regional fire service has 144 stations throughout the region. Many of these, however, are volunteer stations with no professional firefighters. The Catalonia fire service has nearly 6,500 firefighters and officers, nearly one-third of the entire Spanish public fire services’ staffing, while protecting a bit more than 15 percent of the entire nation’s population. The region also requires extensive certified training for the several hundred industrial firefighters stationed in the industrial parks and seaports, as well as the volunteer firefighters.

The Tarragona incident is still being investigated and the cause of the initial explosion has yet to be determined. The management of the plant may be subject to accusations of involuntary homicide as well as negligence which could have contributed to the cause or causes of the explosion and fires.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past four decades. He served as an Anne Arundel County (MD) volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters’ Association (ASELF).

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