Thirty years ago, when the American chemical industry was less centralized, chemical plant fires were more common than they are today. But they still happen. In this case a manhole on a butyl acrylate polymerization reactor blew off and took flammable chemicals with it, burning out a four-story reactor building and causing $30MM in damage before the fire could be brought under control.

The reactor had been left full without catalyst during a two-week Christmas shutdown. Operators introduced the catalyst after vacation, but they could not empty the tank to stop the reaction when it was complete.

After the fire, we found a polymer plug in the reactor drain, below a slug of catalyst. The plug probably formed during shutdown because the reactor sat next to steam pipes whose low-grade heat produced the reaction. Although operators were aware of the runaway situation, no one realized that a fairly low pressure within the reactor could blow off the manhole cover. One operator died.

Our other chemical plant situations include hot oil heat transfer system failures, tank and pressure vessel failures, pilot plant failures and oven/furnace fires. Substances include asphalt, ammonia, freon, nitric acid, nylon flock and sodium.