Sunday, September 19, 2021
Sept. 19, 2021

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Clues sought in LNG plant explosion

Facility remains closed, but evacuation order for nearby residences is lifted

The Columbian

State and federal regulators looking for what caused an explosion at a liquefied natural gas facility on the Washington-Oregon border began interviewing injured workers Tuesday as an evacuation order covering hundreds of nearby residents was lifted.

Also Tuesday, a team of firefighters and plant employees went inside the Williams Northwest Pipeline storage facility and found no lingering fire. The safety check came after the Monday blast injured five employees and ruptured a huge liquefied natural gas storage tank.

The Benton County Sheriff’s Department ended the evacuation order that affected an estimated 300 people living in the tiny town of Plymouth or within 1 mile of the plant. The explosion and fire initially prompted the evacuation of about 400 residents from the town and a 2-mile radius of the plant.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Deanna Davis said the danger of further explosions had diminished, but the facility remained closed.

Among the injured, Deputy Joe Lusignan said, one worker was still being treated at a hospital in Portland for burns to the face and hands, and four others were released after treatment at a hospital in Hermiston, Ore. Their identities haven’t been released.

Some gas continued to leak from the tank a day later, but it was being dissipated by the wind, Lusignan said.

Williams spokeswoman Michele Swaner did not immediately return a call for comment on Tuesday.

The outer wall of the damaged tank was visibly punctured, allowing white insulation to drain out onto the ground, but it’s still unclear if the inner wall was affected, said David Lykken, pipeline safety director for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. The natural gas inside the tank is supercooled to a liquid, but is not pressurized, and the top layer is normally in a gaseous state.

Three experts were investigating the explosion’s cause Tuesday, Lykken said: an engineer from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, an inspector from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, and an officer from the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.

Sheriff Steve Keane said his office would also investigate, looking for any potential criminal implications.

The Washington facility provides supplemental gas during times of high demand for a 4,000-mile pipeline stretching from the Canadian border to southern Utah. Gas is drawn off the pipeline during the summer, cooled and stored until it is needed in the winter, Lykken said. The two liquefied natural gas storage tanks each have a capacity of 1.2 billion cubic feet. The one that punctured was not full.

The facility is the only one of its kind that is liquefying natural gas in Washington, Lykken said. Oregon has a similar facility on the Columbia river west of Portland. Similar operations would take place at export terminals proposed for construction in Oregon.

Lykken said an explosion like this is rare, and nothing like it has happened before at the Washington facility. He added that regular annual inspections by the commission have turned up some operational and procedural violations at the facility in the past, but they were all resolved.