History's Worst Chemical Plant Accidents

Due to the risk associated with them, there are few industrial accidents that cause as much damage as an accident at a chemical plant. Throughout history, we have seen these types of disasters result in catastrophic damage, including fatalities, severe injuries, and unimaginable property damage. Below, we take a look back at some examples of the worst chemical plant accidents that have ever occurred in the U.S.

Thiokol-Woodbine Explosion – February 3, 1971

In Woodbine, GA, a chemical plant was set on fire and later exploded on February 3, 1971. The plant was operated by Thiokol Chemical at the time of the accident and was composed of more than 35 buildings on a facility that stretched for 7,400 acres of Georgia land. The fires occurred in building M-132, which was large and without windows. The fires were started where an ignition chemical was added to other chemicals; while other small fires were not rare, this one quickly proved to be different as it jumped to the conveyor belt and spread throughout the building. Within minutes of the fire beginning, all 80 workers evacuated the building but did not leave the general area. The fire then reached the plant's storage rooms, which caused the blast.

The results were catastrophic, with 24 people dying during the explosion or immediately after, 5 dying later from related injuries, and at least 50 other individuals suffering catastrophic and life-changing injuries.

PEPCON Disaster – May 4, 1988

This disaster occurred at a chemical plant run by the Pacific Engineering and Production Company of Nevada, also known as PEPCON; the plant was located in Henderson, NV, which is a mere 10 miles from Las Vegas. At the time of the accident, it was one of two plants producing ammonium perchlorate (AP) in the U.S., which was used as solid propellant rocket boosters in everything from weapons to non-weapon programs. Currently, there are several different theories about what occurred at that plant on May 4; however, what all experts agree upon is that a fire broke out somewhere in the plant and quickly spread—later triggering the explosions.

The accident killed 2 people, injured 372 people, and caused an estimated $100M worth of damage.

Phillips Disaster – October 23, 1989

On October 23, 1989, a series of explosions and a fire occurred at a Houston Chemical Complex (HCC) facility in Pasadena, TX that was producing high-density polyethylene (HDPE). The accident occurred during routine maintenance at the plant when air connections for opening and closing the valve were reversed—releasing 85,000 pounds of flammable gases instantly. The gas traveled through the plant and within two minutes came into contact with an ignition source and exploded. Somewhere between 10 to 15 minutes later, a storage tank exploded, which was followed by several other blasts throughout the plant. The explosions initially registered 3.5 on the Richter Scale and the fires took approximately 10 hours to bring back under control.

The fire and explosions killed 23 employees and injured nearly 315 other individuals.

Sterlington Plant Blast – May 1, 1991

A chemical plant owned by Angus Chemical of Northbrook, Ill and operated by IMC Fertilizer in Sterlington, LA suffered from a series of blasts. The accident caused both workers and local residents to suffer severe injuries and approximately 500-600 residents were immediately evacuated. The local area saw severe damage with buildings suffering blasted out windows, siding ripped from homes, and vehicles completely burned. Per the mayor, the business district was hit particularly hard. According to reports after the blast, a small fire was reported in the plant and blasts occurred about 30 seconds later, which could be heard 8 miles away.

The blast killed 8 of the workers at the plant and injured approximately 120 other people.

Williams Olefins Plant Explosion – June 13, 2013

On June 13 a plant explosion occurred in Geismar, LA, which is roughly 20 miles outside of Baton Rouge. Per reports following the blast, the accident was caused by the failure of a heat exchanger, which triggered investigations by both the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The plant had been originally built by Allied Chemical in 1968 and was later transferred to Williams Olefins in 1999 where it was used to produce ethylene and propylene. The blasts could be felt for several miles outside of the chemical plant and shelter in place orders were quickly issued.

The accident killed 2 workers and injured 114 other people.

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