Safety watchdog says Salem power plant failed to protect employees

By Tom Dalton

Staff writer, The Salem News

Sat, May 15, 2008

SALEM — A federal agency yesterday cited the owner of Salem Harbor Station for "serious violations" in connection with the steam explosion from a ruptured boiler tube that killed three workers last fall.

In all, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the plant for 10 violations and $46,800 in potential fines. This is the first action taken against the coal- and oil-fired power plant since the Nov. 6, 2007, accident.

The explosion killed Mark Mansfield, 41, of Peabody; Phil Robinson, 56, of Beverly; and Mathew Indeglia, 20, of Lawrence.

OSHA said it had been more than nine years since Dominion Energy New England had inspected or even entered the lower section of Boiler No. 3, the area where the failed boiler tube was located. Furthermore, the 16-foot-high area at the bottom of the 10-story boiler was so full of ash and debris that it blocked entry for an inspection, the agency said.

"OSHA's investigation found that the company failed to take effective steps to protect employees against the hazards of burns and other bodily injuries from hot ash and steam as a result of ruptured or leaking boiler tubes and piping," OSHA said in a statement.

Dominion strongly disagreed with the findings and said it will "vigorously contest" the action. It will file an appeal in a few days, a spokesman said.

The Virginia-based energy company also revealed for the first time the apparent cause of the accident — an old and faulty weld that failed on a metal boiler tube. The defect was inside the tube and would not have been found in any walk-through inspection of that lower boiler section, Dominion said.

"This defect was not visibly obvious or discoverable through recognized normal industry inspection or testing practices," said Jim Norvelle, a company spokesman.

A laboratory test in Texas concluded that the accident was caused when a "subsurface defect" in a weld that may have been 50 years old broke through to the surface of the tube, according to Dominion. That finding was made by Structural Integrity Associates, an independent laboratory that was approved by the state Department of Public Safety and the Essex County District Attorney's Office, the company said.

Both of those law enforcement agencies are investigating the accident.

"We could have inspected it every month, and we would not have seen this defect," Norvelle said.

OSHA said there are industry standards and manufacturer's guidelines for boiler inspections that Dominion was not following.

A union official at Salem Harbor Station who has been a strong supporter of the company's safety record expressed some concern about the findings.

"If OSHA is correct and there is supposed to be an inspection procedure, and the company did not follow that inspection procedure, that would concern me — but I don't believe that's the case," said Rick Robey, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 326, which represents hourly employees.

In all, OSHA cited 10 "serious violations." However, the other alleged violations did not appear to be related to the accident. They included an improperly installed overhead hoist system, incorrect storage of gas cylinders, and an unattended and running forklift.

Dominion said it already has addressed most of those issues, "many of which concerned temporary structures, equipment or repair efforts related to the power station recovery, not the ongoing operation of the facility."

The federal agency also ordered corrective measures for cleaning and inspecting boilers.

"The company must initiate and maintain effective safeguards to identify and eliminate such hazards, both to protect its employees and to prevent future leaks, ruptures or explosions," Rosemarie Ohar, OSHA's acting area director, said in a prepared statement. "Proper inspection and maintenance are critical to detecting potentially dangerous conditions."

OSHA last inspected the Salem plant in 2006, but issued no citations.

Mansfield, Robinson and Indeglia were working near Boiler No. 3. The workers' families have hired attorneys, who are expected to file lawsuits in the case.

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