Search

CSB Report: “Popcorn Polymer” Led to Explosions and $583M in Damages

Posted on 1/6/2023 by Nick Waldron and Roger Marks

At a chemical plant in Texas, pressure buildup causes a pipe to rupture. Within minutes, six thousand gallons of flammable butadiene gas leaks from the pipe, vaporizes, ignites, and explodes. A series of explosions follow that cause $583 million in damages to the plant and the surrounding area. 

The incident described happened in the city of Port Neches on the night before Thanksgiving in 2019. In December 2022, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) issued a final Investigation Report focused on the accident that includes safety recommendations and key lessons for industry. 

The pipe that burst was 35 feet long and closed off at one end. The pressure buildup was caused by “popcorn polymer”—also known as crystalline polybutadiene—that can rapidly accumulate inside of equipment that handles high-purity butadiene. 

CSB Report: “Popcorn Polymer” Led to Explosions and $583M in Damages

Dangers of "Dead Legs" in Process Equipment 

Some recommendations in CSB's Final Report relate to dead legs—sections of pipe or equipment that are not in use (permanently or temporarily), in which hazardous chemicals, chemical vapors, or water can accumulate. If these "dead leg" areas are not addressed when processing high-purity butadiene (as in this case), popcorn polymer can “grow” unnoticed. The substance expands and accumulates in a chain reaction until the pipe or vessel ruptures.

3 Key Lessons for Industry

The Final Investigation Report on the Port Neches, TX butadiene incident includes three “key lessons for industry.” CSB provides some practical guidance about implementing these lessons learned, and puts forth five safety recommendations in the full report linked above. 

1. Companies should establish a process to identify, control, or eliminate dead legs in operations susceptible to popcorn polymer formation...
2. …Butadiene facilities should develop robust policies to prevent and control popcorn polymer development and growth based on industry guidance, such as thorough equipment passivation, controlling oxygen levels, through chemical inhibitors, and other best practice methods.
3. Companies that handle large inventories of flammable or toxic material should assess their capability to remotely isolate these inventories in the event of a loss of process containment.
 

Alleged OSHA Violations

OSHA inspected the facility after the incident and cited the employer for two willful violations of the Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard related to the explosion and fire:

  • Failure to implement adequate process safety procedures [(29 CFR 1910.119(f)(1))], and
  • Not correct deficiencies in equipment to assure safe operations [(29 CFR 1910.119(j)(5)]

OSHA also cited the employer for violating the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act of 1970 (Section (5)(a)(1)), which requires employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause death, or serious physical harm.

For these violations, the owners of the facility faced more $500,000 civil penalties. As of January 2022, the maximum monetary penalty for each “willful violation” is about $145,000.

Updating the PSM Standard

OSHA held a public meeting with stakeholders late last year to discuss an ongoing rulemaking project to "modernize" the Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard in 29 CFR 1910.1119 (Details).  

Find a Post

Compliance Archives

Lion - Quotes

I was recently offered an opportunity to take my training through another company, but I politely declined. I only attend Lion Technology workshops.

Stephanie Gilliam

Material Production/Logistics Manager

These are the best commercial course references I have seen (10+ years). Great job!

Ed Grzybowski

EHS & Facility Engineer

The instructor had knowledge of regulations and understanding of real-world situations. The presentation style was engaging and fostered a positive atmosphere for information sharing.

Linda Arlen

Safety & Environmental Compliance Officer

I think LION does an excellent job of any training they do. Materials provided are very useful to my day-to-day work activities.

Pamela Embody

EHS Specialist

Course instructor was better prepared and presented better than other trainers. Course manual and references were easier to use as well.

Marty Brownfield

Hazardous Waste Professional

Amazing instructor; real-life examples. Lion training gets better every year!

Frank Papandrea

Environmental Manager

This course went above my expectations from the moment I walked in the door. The instructor led us through two days packed with useful compliance information.

Rachel Stewart

Environmental Manager

Lion is at the top of the industry in compliance training. Course content and structure are updated frequently to make annual re-training enjoyable. I like that Lion has experts that I can contact for 1 year after the training.

Caroline Froning

Plant Chemist

The training was impressive. I am not a fan of online training but this was put together very well. I would recommend Lion to others.

Donnie James

Quality Manager

The instructor was very knowledgeable and provided pertinent information above and beyond the questions that were asked.

Johnny Barton

Logistics Coordinator

Download Our Latest Whitepaper

Ace hazmat inspections. Protect personnel. Defend against civil and criminal penalties. How? See the self-audit "best practices" for hazardous materials shippers.

Latest Whitepaper

By submitting your phone number, you agree to receive recurring marketing and training text messages. Consent to receive text messages is not required for any purchases. Text STOP at any time to cancel. Message and data rates may apply. View our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.