BOSTON – State fire investigators have concluded that a fatal explosion at a condominium project last summer was not the result of the delivery of odorless propane gas from a Westfield, Mass., distributor, as initially thought.
The report from Fire Marshal Stephen Coan's office into the July explosion in Norfolk instead pointed to another possible cause — a phenomenon known as "odorant fade."
That can occur when the chemical that gives propane its distinctive "rotten eggs" smell fades over time. Odorant fade can occur in new tanks or tanks that have run dry and are only partially filled.
The 1,000-gallon tank at the condominium construction site had only 200 gallons of propane in it at the time of the explosion, which killed an electrician and injured three others workers and two firefighters. Workers said they did not smell gas before the blast.
The probe initially focused on the Westfield company DCP Midstream, which had made deliveries to the development. But further investigation by Coan's office revealed that DCP Midstream had made its first delivery to the development on May 6, while the gas in the tank had been delivered a week earlier on April 29.
"It is clear that the (propane) gas in the Norfolk tanks at the time of the explosion did not come from DCP Midstream Westfield and are not connected as first thought," according to the report, which was made public.
Investigators then considered the possibility that the chemical that gives the gas its smell — Ethyl Mercaptan — faded over time because the tank was only partially filled.
That's a problem because rust on the inside of the tank can react with the chemical, making it harder to smell and leaks harder to detect since propane gas itself is odorless.
"The phenomenon has been noted since at least the 1950's or earlier and is well known in the industry," the report said.
According to the report, the company in charge of filling the tank that exploded at the condominium project was Energy USA in Taunton. Investigators said records show a delivery of 200 gallons on April 29.
Energy USA told investigators that only a small amount of gas was delivered because it was a construction area and the gas meters had not been installed, resulting in a partial delivery. There were no records of additional deliveries.
An operator answering phone calls for Energy USA said nobody was available Wednesday to answer questions. An e-mail request for comment from DPC Midstream was not immediately returned.
Marc Breakstone, a lawyer for the family of William Nichols, the 46-year-old electrician killed in the explosion at The Village at River's Edge condominium project, said a warning label on the tank made it clear that the tank should not be partially filled.
He said he's planning a lawsuit against Energy USA on behalf of the family.
"This was absolutely a preventable tragedy," he said.
Although investigators now say that DCP Midstream was not directly responsible for the explosion, their probe did uncover a much wider problem of unodorized or under-odorized gas being distributed by the company in Massachusetts.
An investigation finished last month by Attorney General Martha Coakley and Coan's office discovered odorless propane in five railcars and four facilities used by the Westfield company.
The tank cars were shipped to the Westfield terminal from Illinois-based gas distributor Aux Sable Liquid Products between July 21 and July 27. They were ordered back to Aux Sable.
A spokeswoman for DCP Midstream said last month that the company has enhanced its procedures to ensure that all propane received at its terminals from suppliers is properly odorized.
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