Hearing Centers on Gas Meter from Explosion Site


Law enforcement, federal safety experts, company lawyers and civil attorneys weighed in on what to do with a battered gas-detection meter that could shed light on the cause of a fatal power plant explosion.

The attorneys addressed a judge in Middletown Superior Court on Tuesday about their wish to examine the heavily damaged meter, which survived the Feb. 7 explosion at Middletown's Kleen Energy Systems plant.

The meter is the equivalent of a crashed airliner's "black box," the attorneys say, and could help explain the explosion that killed six workers and injured more than 20 others. The meter's data chip may contain gas-level readings taken before and during the blast, information about whether warning alarms went off and other critical details. Or, if it's too badly damaged, the meter could be useless.

Some workers have said they noticed an unusually strong gas smell just before the blast, which ripped apart the nearly completed 620-megawatt power plant. It occurred as employees for O&G Industries Inc. cleaned pipes by blowing large amounts of natural gas through them.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which criticizes that practice as inherently unsafe, wants to examine the meter as part of recommendations it's drafting to urge companies to find other ways to clean industrial plant pipes.

The board has filed a federal subpoena on the Middletown Police Department for the unit and twice has sent a representative from Washington, D.C., to collect it, to no avail. The unit and its data chip recently were moved from Middletown to the Connecticut State Police forensic lab.

"They've been playing a shell game, quite frankly, with the location of the detector and we're quite frustrated with that," said Raymond Porfiri, the chemical safety board's attorney.

But state and local police worry that giving the unit to other agencies could jeopardize the integrity and confidentiality of the evidence as they consider whether to file criminal charges against any individuals, companies or entities.

"We would just like a commitment that whoever touches this evidence in the chain of custody would be willing to come to Connecticut to testify in a criminal prosecution, should one develop," said attorney Thomas Gerarde, who represents Middletown's police.

Attorneys for Kleen Energy Systems and O&G Industries say they also want a say in the testing protocol, a chance to have their experts watch and assurances that any testing won't damage the unit in case they need to do independent tests later.

Civil attorneys, too, want a role in the testing. Robert Reardon, one of four attorneys representing 10 injured and deceased workers, said they also want their experts to participate in the testing in case it yields evidence important to their cases.

Judge Robert Holzberg did not immediately rule on whether the federal safety board should get a chance to test the unit. Its attorneys were in the process Tuesday of drawing up paperwork explaining how its workers would ensure a secure chain of custody that could hold up in a criminal case.

The hearing was scheduled to reconvene Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm trying to fashion a result that's respectful of all of the interests involved, including the prosecutorial interests," Holzberg said.

Exactly what sparked the blast has not been determined, though the safety board's lead investigator has said there were several potential ignition sources nearby.

He would not say what they were, but said that in general, natural gas can be sparked by anything from welders' tools to electrical devices to static electricity.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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