Posted with permission from The Hartford Courant

After six workers were killed in a massive gas explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Connecticut four years ago, federal investigators tallied hundreds of violations at the site and issued $16.6 million in penalties against more than a dozen companies — the third-largest workplace-safety fine in the nation's history.

"The millions of dollars in fines levied pale in comparison to the value of the six lives lost and numerous other lives disrupted," U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said at the time. "However, the fines and penalties reflect the gravity and severity of the deadly conditions created by the companies managing the work at the site."

But in the years since the blast, the federal government agreed to deals that will wipe out as much as 88 percent of the fines levied against the companies it determined were responsible for the explosion, a Courant review of documents related to the case has revealed.

Government regulators also rejected calls for an outrightban on the use of flammable gas to clean out pipes — called "gas blows" — dismissing a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and creating a scenario described by the board's lead Kleen Energy investigator as a "disaster waiting to happen."

Instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is banking on compliance with new industry guidelines that include safer alternatives for pipe-purging. In 49 of the 50 states, that compliance is voluntary; as the fourth anniversary of the blast passes, no state has acted to ban gas blows except Connecticut.

The Kleen Energy site erupted in fire on Feb. 7, 2010, while workers were using pressurized natural gas to blow debris out of pipes in preparation for making the nearly completed plant operational. The highly flammable gas ignited, creating a horrific explosion that could be felt 40 miles away. Six workers were killed: Peter Chepulis, Ronald Crabb, Raymond Dobratz, Kenneth Haskell, Roy Rushton and Chris Walters. Fifty more were injured.

OSHA fined 17 companies it said had "blatantly disregarded" industry standards, with the biggest penalty assessed against general contractor O&G Industries of Torrington. The deadly blast also focused national attention on the risky practice of using flammable gas to clear pipes.

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