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Wednesday, November 19, 2014 @ 12:11 PM gHale

A Miami, AZ, smelter shut down after molten copper breached a processing vessel, causing a fire and explosions but no injuries, officials said.

The incident occurred late Wednesday night in Miami, which is about 70 miles east of Phoenix, said spokesman Eric Kinneberg of Phoenix-based Freeport McMorRan Inc.

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Kinneberg said the molten material that spilled on the ground inside and around a building ended up contained and is no longer flowing.

A.J. Howell of the Tri-City Fire District said explosions heard and felt by residents of Miami and the neighboring communities of Globe and Claypool happened when the molten copper came in contact with water.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 @ 11:11 AM gHale

Safety plans ended up put to a test at the Stepan Company chemical plant in Elwood, IL, after two leaks of sulfur trioxide in two different days, officials said.

On Thursday a cloud of chemicals released from a railroad tanker. On Friday, a vapor leak of sulfur trioxide lasted for more than 13 hours at the plant before officials stopped it.

About 1 a.m. Thursday, employees had just started offloading a rail car when a pressure relief valve malfunctioned, said Will County sheriff’s spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer. A small vapor cloud of sulfur trioxide sprayed into the air within the facility, which is along the Des Plaines River, just off Millsdale Road and northeast of Interstate 55.

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Elwood and 12 other fire departments assisted Stepan employees for a hazardous material alarm call.

“An additional small release was experienced while the rail car was being locked down,” Hoffmeyer said.

Stepan spokeswoman Kim Kumiega said no employees suffered injuries from the gaseous release, but all employees had to take shelter until officials could contain it.

Hoffmeyer said sheriff’s deputies also evacuated truck drivers waiting to make deliveries at the south gate.

Access roads closed until officials contained the gas and personnel ended up diverted to staging areas, according to Hoffmeyer. Kumiega said plant operations returned to normal by 10 a.m.

“There was no impact to the community,” Kumiega said. “We will be conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the release.”

Sulfur trioxide sees use in the manufacturing of sulfuric acid and is a toxic chemical, according to Stepan documents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said sulfuric gases in the atmosphere can contribute to acid rain.

“It’s definitely a material you don’t want to encounter if you don’t need to,” said Harold Damron, director of the Will County Emergency Management Agency.

Damron said there were no off-site complaints about the leak. Stepan kept the situation under control, he said.

“We had a few people on the scene throughout the night,” Damron said. “We were satisfied there wasn’t any off-site impact. They were using a water stream to knock the vapors down at the site.”

Several fire departments ended up called to the scene as a cautionary measure in case there was contamination or any impact on employees, Damron said. But the leak ended up knocked down by Stepan emergency crews.

Second Leak
In the Friday incident, a sulfur trioxide vapor leak lasted for more than 13 hours.

Stepan reported that the leak, which started at about 4 a.m., stopped at 5:30 p.m.

In both cases, company officials and local authorities said they were confident the contamination remained on-site without any hazard to the surround community.

“This incident is similar to yesterday,” Damron said.

Air monitors were set up outside of the plant Friday to check for possible impact, Damron said. He said the Elwood Fire Department and a multi-department hazardous materials team also were on site for independent confirmation of what was happening at the Stepan plant.

Both leaks occurred at rail cars, but they were separate rail cars, Kumiega said. Work crews were going to come in Saturday to conduct repairs, she said.

Crews used a fog stream to convert the leaked vapor into liquid and knock it to the ground where it could be contained on site, Damron said.

Although the leak lasted more than 13 hours Friday, it was small enough that it did not pose a hazard to the surrounding area, Damron said.

“I would compare it to a trickle from a water pipe rather than a pipe being broken,” Damron said. “It’s not occurring in any concentration that would be dangerous.”

One advantage in the containment efforts, Damron said, was you could use water to manage sulfur trioxide vapors.

“Being able to knock it down with the water fog is a big thing,” he said. “They still have to clean up the water. But that they can do right at the containment area. They don’t have to worry about it getting airborne.”

Sulfur trioxide is an ingredient used in manufacturing laundry detergent.

Stepan said the company had “engaged experts to help determine the cause.” The investigation into what caused the leaks was going to continue Saturday, Kumiega said.

Stepan also said the plant “will not return to normal operations until we are certain that the leak is stopped and have been assured by our experts and local authorities that the issue has been resolved.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014 @ 02:11 PM gHale

A process running in normal running conditions, while dangerous, is the safest time for any refinery, but when there is a startup or shut down condition, that is the cause of very tense times.

One perfect point in case is Tesoro refinery disaster in Anacortes, Washington April 2, 2010. That accident occurred during startup of the refinery’s “naphtha hydrotreater unit” after a maintenance shut down. A nearly 40-year-old heat exchanger violently ruptured, causing an explosion and fire that killed seven workers – the largest loss of life at a U.S. refinery since 2005.

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With that in mind, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released an important safety video into the fatal explosion and fire at the Tesoro refinery.

The CSB’s 14-minute safety video entitled “Behind the Curve” includes a 3D animation of the events that led up to this tragic accident as well as interviews with the CSB’s investigators and chairperson.

“The CSB is seriously concerned by the number of deadly refinery accidents in recent years,” said CSB Chairperson Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso. “We have concluded that extensive improvements must be made in how refineries are regulated at the state and federal level.”

The CSB’s investigation found an immediate cause of the tragedy to be long-term, undetected High Temperature Hydrogen Attack (HTHA) of the steel equipment, which led to the vessel rupture on the day of the accident. The CSB found the industry’s standard for determining vulnerability of equipment to HTHA, to be inadequate.

“High temperature hydrogen attack, or HTHA, is a common hazard that has long been known within the petrochemical industry,” said Investigator Lauren Grim in the video. “However, Tesoro engineers and corrosion experts did not believe it could occur within the heat exchanger that ultimately failed.”

The CSB’s investigation report, approved in May 2014, found a substandard safety culture at Tesoro, which led to a complacent attitude toward flammable leaks and occasional fires over the years.

In addition, the CSB found that the complexity of the startup procedure typically required more than just one outside operator. Yet operating procedures did not end up updated to account for the role of additional personnel during the hazardous non-routine work.

The CSB made recommendations in these areas to the industry group that issues guidance on HTHA, the American Petroleum Institute, as well as to Tesoro.

“The CSB found that if Tesoro had a strong safety culture, it would have addressed the ongoing leaks and defined a reasonable number of essential personnel for the startup activity,” said Investigator Dan Tillema in the video. “Had Tesoro done these things, we concluded that fewer workers would have been present on the night of the accident, and lives would have been spared.”

The CSB’s final report also recommended the governor and legislature of the State of Washington significantly strengthen the oversight of refineries.

The Board called on the state to require refineries to:
• Conduct more comprehensive hazard analyses and damage mechanism reviews
• Document the effectiveness of process safeguards
• Increase the role for worker representatives in process safety management
• Have company safety reviews examined by technically competent regulators

“Seven lives were lost at Tesoro, Moure-Eraso said. “It should not have happened. Companies, workers, and communities would all benefit from a more rigorous regulatory system that is focused on continuously lowering risks.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 @ 06:10 PM gHale

Five workers injured in an Eagle Ford shale oil rig fire are now undergoing treatment at the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC).

That fire broke out at 6:45 p.m. Friday at a Pioneer Natural Resources rig off Highway 97 near Tilden, TX. That’s about 70 miles south of San Antonio.

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A Pioneer representative said the five workers were on the rig when the fire broke out. He said other workers put the fire out and called emergency responders to help the injured.

Emergency medical helicopters flew all five to SAMMC last night. Their conditions are not immediately available.

Pioneer said it’s not clear what caused the rig fire and an investigation is now underway. The company also said there was no oil spill from the burn site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 @ 05:10 PM gHale

An apparent equipment failure in the main production building led to a chemical leak at the Honeywell Metropolis plant Sunday night.

The leak at the Metropolis, IL-based plant “was due to an apparent equipment failure in the main production building. Plant personnel followed all emergency procedures and plant safety systems performed as designed. There were no injuries and no indication that any UF6 material left the site. The plant is continuing its investigation into the incident and working to determine how much material was released,” said Honeywell spokesman Peter Dalpe.

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The leak was of UF6, or uranium Hexa-fluoride, which is toxic and reacts with water. Honeywell’s Metropolis plant is the only U.S. facility that converts uranium oxide into to uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which is then enriched to be used as fuel in nuclear power plants.

The leak began at 7:35 p.m. Sunday. “Plant personnel immediately activated emergency procedures and equipment and the plant’s trained emergency teams responded and contained the leak,” Dalpe said.

A white vapor did hover over the plant during the incident.

Honeywell said water contained the material in the area of the leak. “The water mitigation systems spray high volumes of water mist into the air and were the reason for the mist around the facility during the incident,” said Dalpe.

Honeywell contacted local and federal authorities about incident at the plant. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the federal agency responsible for monitoring safety issues at the plant.

The leak ended up contained to inside the building. While Honeywell was under a plant emergency, there was no danger to surrounding homes, Dalpe said.

An inspector from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission started an investigation at the plant on Tuesday, said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah.

“At this point we’re still in a fact-finding mode,” Hannah said. “We haven’t come to any conclusions about whether processes weren’t followed.” He said the investigation could take a few days to a week.

Monday, October 20, 2014 @ 04:10 PM gHale

It is time to put the notion of an air gap to rest.

Even systems thought to be in an air-gapped environment are not safe. An all in one printer can end up an attack vector for a smart bad guy. Just ask cryptographer Adi Shamir, co-inventor of the RSA cryptographic system, and researchers Yuval Elovici and Moti Guri from Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

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In theory, if a malicious program ends up installed on an air-gapped computer by an unsuspecting user via, say, a USB thumb drive, attackers should have a hard time controlling the malicious program or stealing data through it because there is no Internet connection. Getting in is the easy part, but just how do you get information out, and how can you send in an attack message?

The researchers found if a multifunction printer end up attached to such a computer, attackers could issue commands to a malicious program running on it by flashing visible or infrared light at the scanner lid when open.

Shamir presented the attack, which he called Scangate, Thursday during his keynote at the Black Hat Europe security conference in Amsterdam.

The researchers said if a source of light points repeatedly at the white coating on the inside of the scanner’s lid during a scanning operation, the resulting image will have a series of white lines on darker background. Those lines correspond to the pulses of light hitting the lid and their thickness depends on the duration of the pulses, Shamir said.

Using this observation the researchers developed Morse code to send pulses of light at different intervals and interpret the resulting lines as binary data—1s and 0s. Malware running on an air-gapped system could end up programmed to initiate a scanning operation at a certain time — for example, during the night — and then interpret the commands sent by attackers using the technique from far away.

Shamir estimated several hundred bits of data can end up sent during a single scan. That’s enough to send small commands to activate functionality built into the malware.

The researchers successfully tested the attack from 200, 900 and 1,200 meters against a computer and printer located in a building in Beersheba, Israel, where EMC, Oracle and other big companies have research centers. They used a laser to flash visible light at the window of the office housing the scanner, illuminating the room.

Using a more powerful laser could produce reliable results from up to 5 kilometers away, according to Shamir. An attacker would likely use infrared light because it’s invisible to the naked eye, but the researchers only tested with infrared light over a short distance because using a high-powered infrared laser can be harmful to people’s eyesight.

Instead of waiting for the malware to initiate a scan, attackers could also wait until a person in the office scans a document with the lid open and then run their attack. In that case, the lines would appear on the sides of the scanned document because of the scanner’s larger surface that leave an uncovered border.

The researchers also found a way for the malware to send data back to the attackers by using the light produced by the scanner itself. Since the malware can initiate and cancel scanning operations, attackers can derive information from the amount of time the scanner’s light is on and reflects off the opened lid.

This is not as efficient as receiving commands, but can work to exfiltrate a few bits of data at a time. It is possible to repeat the operation to eventually exfiltrate critical information, like encryption keys, Shamir said.

Detecting the light generated by the scanner from far away would require very sensitive equipment and if the computer is in an office on a higher floor, the attacker would have a hard time getting good visibility. This can end up solved by using a quadcopter drone to get closer and observing the scanner from a better angle, Shamir said.

The technique is similar to the side-channel attacks that can derive cryptographic keys by analyzing a computer system’s power consumption, electromagnetic leaks or even sound during a cryptographic operation.

There are other examples of air-gapped systems suffering infection. The Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, hit air-gapped computers at Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz through USB drives.

Monday, October 20, 2014 @ 02:10 PM gHale

A failed regulator led to a incident where two Entergy employees suffered injuries when a Marshall, Arkansas, substation experienced a failure Wednesday night.

Two employees suffered injuries and ended up transported to the hospital around 8 p.m. when a piece of equipment malfunctioned during maintenance work, said Entergy spokesperson, Sally Graham.

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Graham said the substation is completely de-energized and heavily damaged. Preliminary reports indicate a regulator failed.

Entergy is conducting an investigation.

Meanwhile, in a separate incident, an equipment failure caused a large surge of electricity at an Entergy substation in Clinton, MS.

Large sparks and smoke were visible at the site on Springridge Road at 11:30 p.m. Thursday.

Entergy says a reactor breaker failed. Crews were investigating the cause. The equipment failure did not cause anyone to lose power, and no one was hurt.

Friday, October 17, 2014 @ 03:10 PM gHale

Sunoco Logistics Partners LP shut a segment of its Mid-Valley Pipeline between Longview, Texas, and Mayersville, Mississippi, after it spilled as much as 4,000 barrels of crude Monday.

The Mid-Valley line carried about 228,000 barrels of crude a day through Louisiana in July, the most recent month for which data is available, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

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After shutting the Longview-Mayersville segment following yesterday’s spill, Sunoco closed the entire Mid-Valley line for 48 hours of planned maintenance because of a refinery turnaround, Lawson said.

This is the second time this year Sunoco has had to shut a section of the Mid-Valley because of a spill. The 20-inch pipe leaked 240 barrels of crude near Colerain Township, Ohio, in March.

A massive cleanup is now underway in Mooringsport, LA, the site of the spill. Residents ended up told late Monday night an oil pipeline had ruptured.

A Louisiana state police said workers were able to contain the spill immediately, but an estimated 4,000 barrels of oil released. Sunoco said the size of the spill is not yet available.

It is already one of the largest pipeline spills of the year according to federal records, but the cause of the leak still remains a mystery.

Crews have brought in equipment to help mediate the spill. The pipeline remains shut off and while workers clean up the area.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014 @ 02:10 PM gHale

Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp. received an extra eight hours to fix a backup generator that damaged in a fire early last week, averting a shutdown of the nuclear power plant near Burlington, KS, federal officials said.

“We’re totally good,” plant spokesman Terry Young said Thursday night, just after the damaged generator gained certification as repaired. “We’re running full-steam ahead.”

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The actual repairs to the damaged generator wrapped up Wednesday afternoon, but the unit had to undergo testing and then run for 24 hours without incident before it could gain certification as being back in service. The plant continued in full-power operating mode while workers conducted the repairs and no radiation released in the incident, officials said.

The deadline extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was good news for customers of the three utility companies that own the plant. Shutdowns cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day as the power companies have to burn more fuel at their coal and gas plants or buy power from other systems, or both. Those costs eventually show up in consumers’ bills.

Without the eight-hour grace period, Wolf Creek operators would have missed a deadline to repair the damaged generator or shut the plant down, Young said. Federal regulations require repairs to wrap up within 72 hours, which would have passed at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

The damaged diesel generator is one of two backup units designed to provide power to run the plant if it loses its regular supply of on- and off-site power.

It suffered damage Monday afternoon when a part of the generator called an “excitation power transformer” burst into flames. That part provides energy to the internal wiring of the generator unit so it can produce electricity.

Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light each own 47 percent of the plant and are entitled to that much of its power output. Kansas Electric Power Cooperative owns the remaining 6 percent and gets that much of the power.

It’s the second time in two weeks that Wolf Creek has gotten a time extension on repairs to avert a shutdown. Last week, the NRC granted the operating company a delay on fixing a malfunctioning sensor unit underneath the reactor core that provides warning if there’s a coolant leak.

The plant has to shut down to fix that problem because the radiation level under the reactor is too high for people to work there when it’s running, even if they’re in protective suits.

NRC officials agreed with Wolf Creek the plant could continue to run because a leak would also be picked up on other sensors that monitor temperature, humidity and radiation in the reactor building.

The bad sensor unit will end up replaced when the plant goes into a scheduled refueling shutdown at the end of February.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @ 02:10 PM gHale

A fire at an offshore natural gas platform in Alaska’s Cook Inlet forced four workers to evacuate and destroyed the crew’s living quarters, but no one suffered injuries and the environmental risk was minimal, officials said.

The blaze broke out Thursday at 7:30 a.m. By evening, the unified command set up for the incident said the fire was in full containment.

Hilcorp Alaska LLC owns the platform and 11 others among the 16 platforms in the inlet.

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The platform would end up monitored through the night, the unified command including Hilcorp, the Coast Guard and the state Department of Environmental Conservation said in a statement.

A Hilcorp helicopter crew evacuated the four workers from the platform 8 miles offshore, company spokeswoman Lori Nelson said.

There was no spill at the scene about 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. The affected site, called the Baker platform, has only one active production well, and they were able to shut it off remotely, Nelson said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Joshua Yates said 11,000 gallons of diesel fuel were onboard, along with 8,000 gallons of drill mud and 1,000 gallons of hydraulic oil.

A subsurface pipeline that carries the gas to the town of Nikiski also closed down.

The fire broke out during a morning safety meeting, Nelson said, and was not production-related.

All four workers who evacuated were doing well, but they were undergoing evaluation, Nelson said.

“Once the response is complete and the platform is deemed safe for folks to be on board, we’ll be cooperating in a full investigation with both federal and state authorities,” she said.

The cause of the blaze was still under investigation, according to responders, who included Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation personnel.

Mike McNeil, a Coast Guard civilian command duty officer in Anchorage, said the agency overheard radio communications by vessels reporting smoke in an area at 8:30 a.m. Hilcorp reported the fire after that.

The Coast Guard said five vessels were involved in fighting the fire and the agency dispatched a cutter, helicopter and another aircraft.

Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.

The Baker platform is among 10 in the inlet that Hilcorp purchased in January 2012. Of those, nine are active in production, with many old wells reactivated, according to Nelson. The Baker platform is among those reactivated, with minimum production from just one well, she said.

Cathy Foerster, one of three members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the company has been considering whether to activate more wells in the inlet.

“Now they’ll have to weigh into that consideration whatever costs are associated with fixing whatever the fire impact is,” Foerster said.