Search

Video: Key Lessons from $600M "Popcorn Polymer" Explosion in Texas

Posted on 7/24/2023 by Lion Technology Inc.

Late last year, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) issued an investigation report focused on a chemical facility explosion that injured two employees and caused a combined $603 million in damages to the facility and the surrounding homes and businesses. 

In their report and the newly released video, CSB identified the cause of the explosion as a buildup of "popcorn polymer" in an unidentified dead leg—an unused/inactive line of pipe—in the facility’s butadiene process. The polymer built up for more than 100 days before rupturing the pipe. Within minutes of the pipe failure, 6,000 gallons of flammable butadiene leaked, vaporized, ignited, and exploded.

US CSB released a video that details the four key safety issues that it believes led to the incident. Read about those issues here, see our takeaway, then watch CSB's video for more details.

In this article:

CSB Video: The Danger of Popcorn Polymer

Four Key Safety Issues

Dead Leg Identification and Control

The facility’s operating procedures did not include identification of potential dead legs.

After replacing a pump that was out of service with a backup, popcorn polymer built up in a dead leg for at least 114 days before rupturing.

A Chemical Safety Board official noted that, if the facility had identified the dead leg, personnel could have taken one of three actions to control popcorn polymer buildup:

  • Prioritizing repair of the pump that was replaced.
  • Purging the piping.
  • Adding popcorn polymer inhibitor to the dead leg.

Process Hazard Analysis Action Item Implementation

A Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) performed in 2016 noted the hazard of popcorn polymer accumulation causing low-or-no flow was identified. The PHA team recommended the facility flushed lines monthly when equipment is out of service for maintenance.

CSB found that the recommendation was not implemented.

Control and Prevention of Popcorn Polymer

In 2016, the facility introduced operational trials for its butadiene unit and reduced the amount of popcorn polymer inhibitor that was injected into the production stream.

The facility then experienced increased popcorn polymer formation within the process, and employees noticed as early as May 2016.

Employees continued to experience buildup and equipment plugging in the butadiene process.

Due to plugging in the process, employees considered shutting down the butadiene process for a mini-outage to clean up the popcorn polymer and bring the unit up to best practice standards.

Remotely Operated Emergency Isolation Valves

The final issue is, once the incident began, it became too dangerous to use the local, manual emergency shutoff valves installed at the facility. Remotely Operated Emergency Isolation Valves may have allowed employees to shut down other parts of the facility from a safe location, shortening the incident.

Takeaway: OSHA PSM and HazCom Compliance 

This incident underscores the critical importance of compliance with OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard, and the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) for training and informing employees about hazardous chemicals at work. 

The PSM Standard exists to prevent or minimize the consequences of catastrophic releases of hazardous chemicals. Employees working at covered facilities must be trained “in an overview of the process and in the operating procedures” that emphasizes safety and health standards, emergency operations (including emergency shut down), and safe work practices [1910.119(g)(1)(i)].

Three employees noticed a cloud of gas forming from a ruptured pipe, they wasted no time removing themselves from the area. Without adequate training and information about hazardous chemicals on site, employees may be unsure about the hazards of a substance leaking from a pipe during an emergency. They may react with too little urgency, or might panic unnecessarily. In this case, the employees' split-second decision to evacuate almost certainly saved their lives.  

Tags: CSB, popcorn polymer, safety video

Find a Post

Compliance Archives

Lion - Quotes

Very witty instructor, made the long times sitting bearable. One of the few training courses I can say I actually enjoyed.

John Hutchinson

Senior EHS Engineer

More thorough than a class I attended last year through another company.

Troy Yonkers

HSES Representative

You blew the doors off the competition!

Stephen Bieschke

Facilities Manager

I have attended other training providers, but Lion is best. Lion is king of the hazmat jungle!!!

Henry Watkins

Hazardous Waste Technician

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

This was the 1st instructor that has made the topic actually enjoyable and easy to follow and understand. Far better than the "other" training providers our company has attended!

Lori Hardy

Process & Resource Administrator

I like the consistency of Lion workshops. The materials are well put together and instructors are top notch!

Kevin Pylka

Permitting, Compliance & Environmental Manager

I have been to other training companies, but Lion’s material is much better and easier to understand.

Mark Abell

Regional Manager

I tried other environmental training providers, but they were all sub-standard compared to Lion. I will not stray from Lion again!

Sara Sills

Environmental Specialist

The instructor created a great learning environment.

Avinash Thummadi

CAD & Environmental Manager

Download Our Latest Whitepaper

Tips to identify and manage universal waste under more-stringent state regulations for generators and universal waste handlers in California.

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.