Jan Schlichtmann "Chemical Delivery Set Up Danversport Blast"

(Boston Globe) Danversport Trust lawyer Jan Schlichtmann says a Kentucky-based chemical company delivered a tanker of chemicals to an ink and paint factory, contributing to an inferno that destroyed or damaged nearly 100 homes and businesses.

Jan SchlichtmannSchlichtmann said a worker for Ashland Inc., based in Covington, Ky., also participated in filling up the 2,000-gallon mixing tank that overheated inside the CAI/Arnel factory, causing an explosion that nearly flattened the Danversport neighborhood.

“We believe this was part of a routine practice,’’ Schlichtmann said of the employee’s actions.

“That makes it particularly egregious. It was an explosion waiting to happen.’’

In a statement, Ashland said it bears no responsibility for the Nov. 22, 2006, explosion, one of the state’s worst industrial accidents.

“Ashland has great sympathy for the people in Danversport,’’ the company said yesterday. “However, as independent investigations have already determined, Ashland played no role in that event.’’

Separate investigations by the state fire marshal’s office and the US Chemical Safety Board concluded the explosion was an accident. Chemical vapors that had built up inside the plant ignited, causing the explosion, investigators concluded last year. How they ignited is not known.

An investigation by the Danversport Trust, a nonprofit formed to work out a settlement with CAI, found that a worker for Ashland assisted in unloading and distributing 6,000 gallons of alcohol and heptane into three underground storage tanks and a mixing tank that were not properly permitted, Schlichtmann said.

“We certainly think it is absolutely unlawful for a chemical supplier to leave off a potentially explosive quantity of chemicals to an unlicensed facility,’’ he said.

The state Department of Fire Services fined CAI/Arnel $400 last year for not having the proper permits to store flammable liquids and chemicals at the factory.

Jennifer Mieth, a department spokeswoman, said the responsibility for obtaining proper permits lies with the company storing and using the chemicals.

John Vorderbrueggen, the chemical safety board’s lead investigator, said the board knew about the chemical delivery but was not previously aware of an allegation that an Ashland worker may have performed work inside the factory. He said the board thinks that chemicals already inside the plant were responsible for the detonation and that the delivery was not a factor because the chemicals were put into underground storage tanks.

“We were aware they took a delivery that day. . . . I doubt that the delivery of that chemical made any difference that day,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “They had the chemicals on site.’’

A consultant hired by the Danversport Trust presented an analysis last night that showed how the blast could have been foreseen, relying on a review of the amount of chemicals stored on the site and used in the manufacturing process.

“When you think about it, they’re dumping a lot of combustible explosives off in a residential area,’’ said Erdem Ural, an explosives specialist.

The Danversport Trust recently accepted a $7 million settlement from CAI to avoid litigation. But with almost $30 million in total losses, for property damage and emotional suffering, the settlement did not come close to compensating residents for losses not covered by insurance. Many residents received less than $1,000 in settlement checks mailed last month.

Susan Tropeano, a leader of a neighborhood group called SAFE, said residents think more government oversight of chemical transportation is needed. “These companies all deliver large quantities of explosives,’’ she said.

The transport of hazardous materials is governed by federal laws. Companies that distribute chemicals must have permits and follow a safety plan, according to the US Department of Transportation.

Schlichtmann said the Danversport Trust has presented its findings to the company.

“We’re calling on them to sit down and own up to their responsibility and make this right,’’ he said. “We believe the evidence is very strong that they contributed to this explosion.’’

Although a legal complaint has not been filed against the company, Ashland said it is preparing its defense.

“Ashland fulfilled all of its duties and responsibilities and played no role in this tragic situation,’’ the company said in a statement. “We intend to vigorously defend against these meritless claims at the proper time and place, and we expect to be fully vindicated.’’