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Investigators Not Clear On What Ignited Dust In Kinston Plant Explosion

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KINSTON, N.C. — Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) claim a massive blast at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, which killed six workers and injured dozen others, was an explosion of fine plastic powder used in the manufacturing of rubber products.

Investigators told the audience at the Kinston High School Performing Arts Center auditorium that a dust explosion occurred above an area where rubber strips were coated with moistened polyethylene powder. Officials say although the powder is made from a plastic similar to that in milk jugs, when dry, it is as fine as talcum and is capable of forming explosive mixtures in the air.

"We held this meeting to brief the community on our findings to date and hear from members of the public who were affected," said CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt. "The Board is deeply concerned by this event and the subsequent plant explosion in Corbin, Kentucky, which claimed seven lives. The dangers of explosive dust are not well known, and helping industry to understand this insidious hazard certainly will be a priority."

The board presented diagrams of the plant, pictures of the damage and a demonstration in which they ignited a half of a teaspoon of the polyethylene powder.

Board consultant Jim Dahn used a static charge to ignite the dust in a small glass tube, sending a streak of flame about a foot high out of the container.

At least one woman fought back tears during the presentation and several others exited the auditorium solemnly after the presentation.

"I certainly have a far-better explanation of what happened than I did before," said Red Edwards whose son was among the people injured in the plant explosion.

CSB lead investigator Stephen Selk said the material contains enough energy to account for the level of destruction at the plant. He also noted the heavy damage had thus far prevented his team from determining the source of the ignition that triggered the dust explosion.

"The polyethylene powder was used as a nonstick coating for rubber sheeting made at the plant," Selk said. "During the production process, the plant's ventilation system drew fine dust particles into the space above an unsealed, suspended ceiling, where the dust settled and built up."

CSB Investigator Angela Blair told the group that on Jan. 29 the five conditions necessary for a dust explosion were all met at the West plant: fuel, oxygen, dispersion, confinement, and ignition. Blair explained that by installing a suspended or false ceiling years earlier, the company had inadvertently created an area where dust could accumulate out of view, and also created a space where a dust explosion could occur and spread.

Selk pointed out that weeks prior to the explosion, maintenance workers had seen layers of dust coating surfaces above the suspended ceiling.

"Tragically, there was no recognition of the explosion hazard posed by this accumulated dust," he said.

Some of the people in attendance in the meeting were upset with plant management over the incident.

"We never had any training. We were never told that the dust could explode," employee Lynda Tripp said.

The CSB so far has conducted 93 detailed interviews of witnesses to the West explosion, including plant workers and residents, and participated in or reviewed the results of 177 additional screening interviews conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The ATF investigation found the blast was not the result of any criminal act.

Company executives said they plan to resume operations in Kinston at a facility close to the former plant. Work is expected to begin next month and employees are expected to move into the new facility by the end of the year.


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