1 year later at Williams: Feds blast company for deadly explosion

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Authorities say a subsidiary of Williams Pipeline violated federal law in connection with a repair operation at a Gibson substation, both before and after an explosion and fire which claimed the lives of four workers and injured two others nearly one year ago.

The company has challenged the findings presented by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which include recommendation that more than $1.6 million in fines be levied, and calls for significant changes in the firm’s operating procedures. Williams has asked for an informal meeting with officials later this month for discussion of the findings, but a date has not yet been set.

The Oct. 8 incident at the Williams Pipeline Company’s natural gas compression plant on Bayou Black Drive resulted in the deaths of contract workers Michael Hill, Sam Brinlee, Casey Ordoyne and Jason Phillippe. Wayne Plaisance, another contractor, was critically injured. Brinlee, Ordoyne and Phillippe were declared dead at the scene. Hill died Oct. 12 at University Hospital in New Orleans.

Findings of fault have also been made against two personnel companies whose workers were contract employees at the Williams site by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Both of the firms – Danos, headquartered in Gray, and Furmanite of Geismar – are contesting the OSHA findings, which have assessed a fine of $14,000 against each.

OSHA’s database did not contain specifics of the violations alleged in connection with the incident.

The most serious allegation against Williams by PHMSA, communicated to the company in a notice prepared July 29, is that Williams “failed to stop work when gas was detected … and allowed welding to start when a combustible mixture of gas and air existed.”

The findings also allege that Williams allowed unqualified personnel to perform tasks that included monitoring of the air in the work area for the presence of natural gas.

The incident, in addition to causing death and injury, resulted in an evacuation of the rural neighborhood where it occurred and extensive closure of a state highway.

In addition to allegations that Williams’ procedures require change, the PHMSA report alleges that company personnel did not factually report the nature of the incident when the National Pollution Reponse Center was contacted. Loss of life and injury were not communicated, even though media reports an hour before that notification was made indicated that “at least one worker was killed.”

The company’s response to that allegation is that a finding of fault would encourage premature reporting of information in the absence of facts.

Attorneys handling litigation against Williams stated last week that the PHMSA report is consistent with information uncovered by their own investigators.

“We wholeheartedly agree with the findings,” said Tommy Servos, an attorney at Zehl & Associates in Houston, which represents family members of some of the deceased as well as one of the injured workers. “They allowed our guys to perform hot work on pipes that had combustible material in them, which is the number one error.”

The fines sought by PHMSA, Servos noted, are of a greater amount than demanded by OSHA in connection with a June 13, 2013 explosion at the Williams Olefins pipeline facility in Geismar, which killed two workers and injured 77 others. Servos and his firm are still involved in litigation regarding that incident, which is expected to go to trial in January.

The recommended $1.6 million in penalties recommended by PHMSA would be paid in addition to any money related to lawsuits filed in connection with the Gibson incident. Servos said that while the dollar amount is encouraging, it is a small price to pay for an incident that claimed human lives.

“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they are going to have to pay in the civil litigation,” Servos said. “But it is a good amount in terms of a hard slap on the wrist, and indicative of all the problems we are going to be highlighting.”

The Williams plant is on a small leg of the Transcontinental Gulf-Atlantic Pipeline, a 10,000-mile system that carries natural gas from Texas to New York.

According to Christopher Stockton, a Williams spokesman, contractors from Danos and Furmanite were doing “routine maintenance” on a slug catcher, a series of horizontal pipes that separate waste elements from incoming natural gas as it heads toward the main conduits.

The pipeline was shut in on Oct. 4 for maintenance, said Stockton, who maintained it was free of natural gas in interviews conducted within days of the incident.

The Gibson plant is used for compression, the elimination of moisture and other impurities from natural gas flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, which must travel dry in the main pipeline. The compressor itself was not damaged in the incident, which chiefly concerned a series of piping called the slug-catcher.

A Times examination of federal records at the time of the incident indicated no reported deficiencies at the plant. Stockton confirmed that in his experience, incidents involving the slug-catching systems are rare.

Two firefighting entities, the Bayou Black and the West Terrebonne fire departments, were called out to the blast simultaneously when it was reported at around 11 a.m.

“All over it came, the fire was there, then the smoke, and then there were helicopters, oh my God,” said Julie Eymard, who lives in a mobile home due west of the Williams plant, steps from its chain-link fence.

The couple she lives with, Elaine and Michael Robicheaux, said they have slept with one ear trained to the Williams station every night for 22 years, fearing a disaster could occur. After the explosion, they said, they experienced some coughing and their dogs, a rat terrier and a Jack Russell, vomited for three days afterward.

The incident resulted in hard questions for first responders due to lack of clarity over who was in charge at the emergency scene. Some lamented delays in the evacuation of the severely burned Michael Hill, questioning whether a different approach might have allowed them to remove him from the scene much sooner.

According to records examined by The Times, the still-living Hill’s removal was potentially delayed by as much as 45 minutes. Both State Police – who according to statute were in charge of the disaster scene – and local firefighters eventually agreed that protocols in place for such incidents required the delays to ensure first-responder safety.

Williams has the option under federal regulations of seeking a hearing, if the talks with PHMSA do not result in a mutually-agreeable result.

Administrative violations alleged in the PHMSA findings include a charge that a manual of written procedure for transmission lines must include procedures for handling abnormal incidents. This includes, according to the PMSA material, procedures for what is called “hot work” – the act of welding or using tools with heat-producing arcs – and includes training requirements.

The manual exists, Williams maintains, acknowledging that procedures need to be tightened up so that what is already required in its pages is followed.

The PHMSA allegations also state that Williams did not have a detailed purge plan for removing gas from the pipe, thus exposing workers to risk during the hot work. Williams denies that there is no procedure or plan but acknowledges that it might not have been followed.

The recommended fines are based on a civil penalty schedule that is “not to exceed $200,000 per violation per day the violation persists up to a maximum of $2,000,000 for a related series of violations.”

“The Compliance Officer has reviewed the circumstances and supporting documentation involved in the above probable violations and has recommended that you be preliminarily assessed a civil penalty of $1,600,000 as follows,” the notice to Williams concludes. •

Williams blast