Baker & O'Brien, Inc.

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The Explosion was the Owner’s Responsibility – But which Owner?

Litigation - Incident Investigation, North America

August 1, 2017

Many refinery processing units were designed and constructed decades ago based on standards and practices in effect at the time.  However, such units are periodically modified to optimize operations, increase throughput, satisfy new industry standards, and/or meet evolving government regulations with respect to the safe handling of hazardous hydrocarbons and other chemicals.  If the operational impacts of such modifications are rigorously analyzed, any associated risks can be identified and mitigated, allowing decades-old equipment to continue to operate safely and reliably.  The federal government’s Process Safety Management (PSM) regulation is a tool used by process plant operators to prevent the release of hazardous substances and reduce the frequency of potential incidents.    

A refinery process unit experienced a failure that resulted in the release of volatile hydrocarbons.  A subsequent explosion and fire resulted in significant equipment damage and several fatalities.  Because the refinery had previously undergone a change in ownership, an issue arose as to whether the original owner or the new owner was at fault.  Both the new owner and the existing owner had modified

this process unit on several occasions, principally to increase capacity.  These modifications had increased the severity of the operation. 

 Baker & O’Brien was retained to review the incident and provide an opinion on which owner was most likely responsible for the incident.  Our review focused on whether the unit was properly engineered, operated, inspected, and maintained in accordance with its design parameters—both by the original and the new owner.  We also considered what industry standards and practices, as well as government regulations, were in effect at the time of any modifications.  Our findings and opinions were presented in an expert report.  Subsequent negotiations between the parties resulted in a settlement.