On January 30, 2008, the first anniversary of a fatal propane explosion at a West Virginia convenience store, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) announced that testing has been completed on a key propane valve and outlined other issues that will be examined in the final investigation report.
The accident on January 30, 2007, at the Little General Store in Ghent killed four people and injured six others when propane gas was suddenly released through a liquid withdrawal valve during a changeover between two propane tanks. A volunteer firefighter and an EMT who responded to reports of the leak were among those killed when the propane cloud ignited, destroying the store.
The CSB has examined and tested the valve and found that on the day of the accident the valve was stuck in an open position.
Investigators are continuing their examination of regulatory and code compliance as well as West Virginia’s gas safety practices.
“This investigation is about more than figuring out what went wrong with the valve, it is about getting to the root cause of this accident and preventing a similar incident from occurring,” said CSB Lead Investigator Jeffrey Wanko, P.E., C.S.P.
On the day of the accident, a technician working for Appalachian Heating (a company that had a business arrangement with Thompson Gas) was preparing to switch propane service to Thompson Gas from a previous propane vendor, Ferrellgas. As part of the process, the technician was to transfer propane from the Ferrellgas tank to the newly installed one.
The Ferrellgas tank was located against the store’s outside rear wall. The Thompson Gas tank was located about ten feet away. While preparing for the transfer, propane began flowing out of the liquid withdrawal valve on the Ferrellgas tank located next to the store.
Lead Investigator Jeffrey Wanko said, “The placement of the tank facilitated gas entering the building and the ignition of the flammable gas and contributed to the high number of injuries and fatalities.” The tank did not comply with National Fire Protection Association or Occupation Safety and Health Administration siting specifications which require that a propane tank be placed 10 feet from the building.
Investigators believe personnel involved in the installation of a new propane tank at the store removed a metal screw cap on the liquid withdrawal valve, in preparation for removing propane from the old tank. The malfunctioning withdrawal valve leaked, resulting in an uncontrollable release. The technician was unable to stop the flow and placed a 911 emergency call at 10:40 a.m.
CSB investigators found that in common with many states, West Virginia does not require technicians who install propane tanks to receive any formal training. The CSB is also examining the practices of 911 emergency call centers to provide basic emergency instructions for flammable gas incidents such as proper evacuation procedures. In this instance, Little General employees stayed in the building during the gas release.
The CSB’s final report and safety recommendations are expected to be complete in mid-2008.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency’s board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.
The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Visit our website, www.csb.gov.
For more information, contact Director of Public Affairs Dr. Daniel Horowitz, (202) 261-7613, or Public Affairs Specialists Hillary Cohen at (202) 261-3601, or Jennifer Jones at (202) 261-3603.