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Published: Friday, December 17, 2010
Page: 8A

Federal investigators are examining the possibility that explosive metal dust could have fueled last week's blast that killed three workers at a small Northern Panhandle chemical plant.

Tiny particles of titanium and zirconium dust could easily have ignited the Dec. 9 explosion at the AL Solutions facility in New Cumberland, U.S. Chemical Safety Board lead investigator Robert Hall told reporters during a Thursday briefing.

"A dust explosion is definitely a possibility here," Hall said. "But it's really too early to tell."

The CSB has investigated a variety of explosive dust incidents in different industries, and has urged the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue new rules to protect against such incidents.

Hall said there other possibilities at AL Solutions, but he did not provide a detailed list and said board investigators have not yet developed any preliminary findings.

The board conducts detailed investigations of major industrial accidents, but does not issue citations or levy fines. Instead, the CSB aims to find root causes and make recommendations to industry and other government agencies aimed at improving safety practices.

AL Solutions recycles titanium and zirconium for use in the metals industry.

At about 1:30 p.m. Dec. 9, brothers Jeffrey Scott Fish, 39, and James E. Fish, 38, and Steven Swain, 27, were working inside a reinforced concrete building where the recycling process is located. An explosion ripped through the building. The Fish brothers died at the scene, and Swain died later at a Pittsburgh hospital.

Hall said no other workers were in the building, so investigators do not have eyewitness accounts of what happened and will have to rely on physical evidence, documents and testimony from workers who did not see the accident.

During his briefing Thursday, Hall said that workers interviewed so far have not identified any "significant" safety complaints or problems at the plant. Hall declined to elaborate when asked if workers had reported more minor concerns.

Hall said the concrete building was added to the plant to contain any incidents after a propane explosion in 1995 killed a worker. Another death at the plant, in 2006, occurred in a different part of the facility, Hall said.

CSB investigators plan to look closely at whether adding the building was a good idea, and whether it is the right sort of structure for a metals recycling process of this type, Hall said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@ or 304-348-1702.

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