Feds, State and City Seeking Answers about Steam Plant Explosion

Federal investigators with OSHA have six months to release their findings.

A boiler explosion at the Veolia Energy Plant on 2600 Christian Street rocked South Philadelphia yesterday afternoon, prompting the evacuation of the plant and the surrounding roadways. Nearby residents were ushered back into their homes by police. Now the company and various government agencies are trying to piece together exactly what happened.

Due to the nature of the facility, numerous departments at several levels of government want answers, but jurisdiction over the investigation has yet to be assigned, according to Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

“As the investigation moves forward, we’ll determine what the different roles are,” Hagen-Frederiksen told Philadelphia magazine. “There is a federal component because of the occupational safety side.”

The investigation is currently a collaborative effort by federal investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Philadelphia Department of Labor and Industry, Hagen-Frederiksen said. Due to the potential involvement of the steam generator and gas line, the PUC’s Pipeline Safety team, which includes the steam safety and gas safety divisions, is also involved.

“OSHA became involved because it was a workplace incident and so there is worker safety involved,” OSHA spokesperson Leni Fortson told Philadelphia magazine. Investigators have six months to conduct the investigation and release its findings.

“If OSHA finds violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, then citations could be issued,” Fortson said.

At this time the Department of Labor and Industry is not commenting on the incident or the investigation.

Residents and business owners in the Grays Ferry area watched Wednesday as a cloud of brown smoke billowed from within the plant, and the explosion was both heard and felt by people in Center City. A nearby restaurant owner said the blast blew his doors wide open.

All employees were safely evacuated from the plant and two minor injuries were reported — a civilian cut by broken glass was treated on the scene and a Veolia employee who refused treatment. A hazmat response team deployed by the Philadelphia Fire Department detected no dangerous chemicals in the air.

“OEM responded to serve as a liaison between Veolia and first responders,” Samantha Phillips, Director of Emergency Management at OEM said today. “We also wanted to make sure we had good information about what the impact of losing the boiler would be.  There are many critical customers that rely on steam service and it was important for us to have first hand understanding of the potential cascading consequences. Fortunately, Veolia was able to make some adjustments and maintain appropriate service levels. That’s the extent of OEM’s involvement.”

Paul Whitmore, a representative of Veolia, confirmed that there were no service interruptions to Philadelphia residents. Veolia is also conducting a separate inquiry into the incident, but is unable to provide an update at this time.

“Our investigation will be separate from any company investigation,” said the PUC’s Hagen-Frederiksen.