Out of Harm’s Way

FROM THE FEBRUARY ISSUE: A fatal fire at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in 2016 prompted the facility to make changes and encourage other plants to do the same.
By Lisa Gibson | January 22, 2019

After the fatal 2016 explosion and fire at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy LLC in Council Bluffs, the plant’s management prioritized not only improving safety measures on-site, but also sharing lessons learned with the ethanol industry. “It was our obligation, our duty, to share and explain,” says Dan Wych, SIRE plant manager. “The ethanol industry is so tight. It’s a family-based industry. It’s a little different, probably, than a lot of industries. We do not want this to ever happen at another ethanol plant.”

The fire occurred on a Friday afternoon in the loadout area, after a driver had hooked up a truck and started loading ethanol. The truck exploded, covering the driver and the area with alcohol that caught fire. The driver died from his injuries a couple weeks later. The cause of the explosion is still unknown, Wych says.

“That incident changed our safety at SIRE. We had a good safety program, but this incident opened our eyes and it really showed us what we needed to do above and beyond.

“It doesn’t matter if it was a SIRE employee or a contractor or a truck driver. It all means the same to us. Every individual who comes on this site is valued.”

Since the accident, Dan Velasquez, SIRE’s safety manager, has delivered in-depth presentations at industry gatherings, explaining what happened and what the plant improved to prevent any injuries moving forward.

Reliance on Design
Perhaps the most important change implemented and recommended by SIRE is the installation of an explosion-proof building near the loadout area to house the operator presence control switch. Ethanol cannot flow unless the truck driver is inside that fire-proof building, Wych says. Previously, the plant had operator presence control switches outside and inside a small building available for shelter from weather during loading. The change means the driver is always protected.

Front Range Energy LLC, in Windsor, Colorado, followed SIRE’s lead and installed the same kind of explosion-proof shelter, housing the only available switch. “During active loading of the truck, that truck driver is inside that building,” says Monica Morris, environmental health and safety manager for Front Range. “We took people away from the point of transfer. You take people away, you’re going to save a life.

“We hadn’t had an issue, and we took information from another plant and started looking into our own situation and thought, ‘Hmm. Maybe we do have an issue,’” Morris says. “We’re learning from another plant’s experience.”

Westmor Industries helped configure the metering inside the shelters for both plants. “We would come out with our proving equipment and make sure everything’s communicating accurately from a commerce standpoint,” says Jon Krueger, sales manager for Westmor. He adds that shelters are common at loadout areas, but explosion-proof protection is rare.

Front Range also followed suit with SIRE on changes to the containment area, Morris says. Catch pans are now isolated, preventing drips from approaching the 200-proof tank.

SIRE had installed a new skid, as the containment area underneath the previous one drained directly to the tank farm. In a fire scenario, that drastically increases the danger. “We had this pool of alcohol, on fire, now surrounding my tank farms, storage tanks,” Wych says. The new system has secondary containment, no longer tied to the tank farm.

SIRE is a standard design for a 100 MMgy ethanol plant built in 2009. “We all have a similar-designed loadout system,” Wych says.

Morris says, “[Risks] could be overlooked if you just rely on an original design, and don’t do site evaluations.”

Contracts and Accountability
Safeguarding the site itself is only one part of the upgrades. The contracted truckers need to be familiar with the procedures they’re expected to follow, Morris and Wych say. “We really had to dive deep into our hauler management procedure and selection process for those haulers,” Morris says. Front Range developed an approval process and disciplinary actions, and monitors the area with cameras at all times. “We had contracts and procedures in place, but we really developed them more, and made them a lot more site-specific with more oversight,” Morris says. “We did a lot of homework on truck loading.”

SIRE’s re-evaluation of standard operating procedure resulted in new training and annual recertification requirements for drivers, to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities, Wych says. “We really improved that tremendously.”

Above and Beyond
“Obviously, when you have an incident like this, every single thing that you’ve ever done is gone through and looked over in detail, and we had investigations from all different types—from OSHA to EPA to police, fire—for several months after that,” Wych says. “A lot of what we did was requirements of OSHA, but a lot was above and beyond, too.”

Following the fire, SIRE upgraded its fire-retardant clothing policy, requiring 100 percent use site-wide, outside of administrative personnel, Wych says. The clothing is provided for all employees. SIRE also requires fire-retardant head socks for drivers and employees in areas it has identified as maximum fire-risk zones, and provides those also. 

Another issue that arose during the fire was access to fire hydrants. They sat on grassy areas, which prevented the forklifts from delivering the totes of foam used in the hydrants. Tires slipped in the mud and got stuck, Wych says. Now, concrete surrounds all hydrants.

And the foam is accessible in a centrally located building on-site. SIRE also purchased large, portable extinguishers on wheeled carts that pump out water and foam. Also housed in the central building are first aid kits, burn gel, burn kits, tourniquets and other emergency items, as well as hydrant wrenches.
“It’s very important that people understand each fire hydrant needs a hydrant wrench, so it’s important to have those wrenches in central locations,” Wych says. “So we put those in the central foam building, too. Everyone knows where the fire hydrant wrenches are.”

SIRE also revised its loading hours, from 24/7 to only during scale house hours. “The trucking companies have adjusted to it,” Wych says. Those loading hours guarantee more people will be on-site, with more eyes on operations. The explosion and fire could have been much worse, if fewer people had been on-site to help, Wych says.

Friday afternoons would usually mean a skeleton crew. But that Friday, many employees were still at work, including a volunteer firefighter who ran immediately to the nearest hydrant, and Velasquez, who heard the explosion and sprinted to help, attempting to smother flames on the truck driver with his bare hands, Wych says. “We’re grateful for every individual who was there and how our plant has come together to make safety not just a program, but a culture,” he says. “It takes every single individual to make your safety culture, safety program, work.”

Wych also recommends making sure local fire personnel are familiar with the ethanol plant and the site. “Get your fire department, get your emergency response people that are local, get them to your facility, show them what needs to happen, show them how you get in and out of your plant. Those things are all important when you’re trying to ask for help from your local resources.”

Willing to Share
Morris says Front Range spent about $40,000 and six months on its safety upgrades, after hearing Velasquez present at a recent conference. “It’s very well worth it,” she says of the cost. “It builds confidence.

“It’s important to be proactive and learn from others’ mistakes,” she says, adding it’s also important to not focus on flaws or point fingers. Employ a mindset of “prevention and correction” that evaluates operations and actively makes necessary changes. 

Wych says SIRE will continue to use its experience to help prevent a similar tragedy at other plants. “We want to share our lessons learned, share our experience, show what we did to try to prevent, ultimately, any kind of injury for employees or contractors,” he says.
“We’re always willing to share our story.”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine