Fatal explosion caused by an intermittently used fuel gas piping system


  • This article is prepared for Presentation at American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2011 Spring Meeting, 7th Global Congress on Process Safety, Chicago, IL, March 13–16, 2011.


A fatal explosion occurred at a foundry during a routine test of an intermittently used liquid propane standby system. Just before the explosion, maintenance personnel were preparing the propane standby system for a startup test. While preparing for the startup test, the group was alerted that employees in an adjacent building had detected the odor of propane. The test was stopped, and the group conducting the test implemented emergency shutdown procedures. The explosion occurred during the execution of the emergency shutdown. The explosion resulted in three fatalities, numerous injuries, and extensive property damages.

The propane standby system was intended to supply synthetic natural gas in the event of an interruption of the natural gas supply from outside utility company. Synthetic natural gas is a mixture of propane and air that has similar combustion properties to natural gas. To ensure the reliability of the propane standby system, it was scheduled for two routine maintenance tasks each year: a preventative maintenance task and a startup task. The liquid propane supply piping for the standby system was a buried pipe. When the underground propane piping was placed back into service for the test, flashing liquid propane discharged from an undetected hole in the pipe into loose backfill material in the surrounding soil. The propane vapor migrated underground and entered a nearby building through a penetration in the building foundation and was subsequently ignited. Following the incident, the buried liquid propane line was excavated, and the hole in the piping was discovered.

This accident was caused by the failure of the mechanical integrity of the liquid propane piping. Within the body of this article, the root causes of the piping failure are discussed along with corrective actions that could have prevented this accident. The corrective actions include selecting an alternative material of construction for the piping, implementing proper construction practices for buried piping, following appropriate test and maintenance procedures for the existing cathodic protection system, and verification of piping integrity by leak testing with an inert gas before placing it into service. © 2011 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Process Saf Prog, 2011