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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004 07:53 pm

A search for answers

Formosa Plastics has been sanctioned by OSHA, but federal investigators have yet to determine the cause of the April 23 explosion
Photo by Todd Spivak

More than seven months after the fatal explosion at Formosa Plastics Corp. in Illiopolis, federal investigators have finally gained access to the long-restricted area of the chemical plant where the incident occurred.

Carrying a respirator, U.S. Chemical Safety Board member Lisa Long entered the site with a team of four other investigators for the first time last Tuesday. Inside the plant, Long says, there is no lighting, staircases and walls are collapsed, and piping and wiring remain exposed.

"It's still a pretty dangerous scene," she says.

CSB investigators will spend the next six months searching for the cause of the April 23 explosion that killed five, injured a dozen more, and led to the temporary evacuation of the entire village of nearly 1,000 residents 25 miles east of Springfield.

The explosion occurred during the production of polyvinyl chloride resins used in general construction, a process that involves the mixing of highly flammable chemicals.

Fire consumed as much as 70 percent of the plant, which has not operated since. The village's biggest employer, with 136 jobs, Formosa laid off 58 workers in May. A company spokesman announced plans to build a new plant at the site, but years may pass before that happens.

For months Illiopolis has swarmed with scientists and investigators from a variety of state and federal agencies. But the CSB represents the lone independent effort to identify what happened and why. The board does not have the authority to impose fines or penalties, but makes recommendations on how to avoid such a disaster again.

Investigators have waited for months to enter the plant as structural engineers have worked to secure the most heavily damaged areas.

Formosa, which operates five plants in states across the country and is headquartered in New Jersey, has already conducted its own investigation. "Human error caused the explosion," says Formosa spokesman Rob Thibault. When asked to explain, Thibault declines: "We don't want to give any more details at this time."

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration two weeks ago levied $361,500 in fines against the Illiopolis plant. The OSHA investigation did not pinpoint the cause of the explosion but found that Formosa was in violation of nearly 50 federal safety regulations.

The violations include failure to maintain fire-protection equipment, inadequate inspection of equipment used to process dangerous chemicals, and insufficient worker training.

Formosa denies the charges and plans to appeal.

Illiopolis residents have expressed concern about pollution of the area's air and water as a result of the release of chemicals and asbestos from the plant during the explosion.

Scientists from the Illinois Department of Agriculture tested for disease in livestock in surrounding areas, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency examined soil- and water-contamination levels. The area was deemed safe despite some instances in which increased levels of dioxins were found, says Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Maggie Carson.

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