A potentially catastrophic fire at Grand Cayman’s fuel terminal last July was caused by welding work on an in-service diesel tank that was not properly monitored and should not have taken place, according to an investigation report from the fuels inspectorate.
OfReg’s report highlights several breaches of industry safety standards by SOL in carrying out “hot works” on a fuel tank filled with 15,000 barrels (525,000 gallons) of diesel fuel.
The fire at the South Church Street facility took more than eight hours to contain and prompted a mass evacuation of neighboring homes. Welding work on an active fuel tank is not in itself outlawed by Cayman’s Dangerous Substances Law.
But OfReg said the state of the tank and the scope of the work, in this case, meant it should have been taken out of service and emptied before the repairs took place.
The report also indicates that SOL and its contractor did not follow proper protocols, failed to adequately plan the works, failed to station a “fire watch” supervisor on the job at all times and ignored a safety alarm that could have alerted them to the danger much earlier.
“The investigation found that the decision to carry out the work in the way it was planned could have been greatly enhanced, likely avoiding the incident altogether,” the report states.
It adds that the “conditions under which the works were performed did not appear to accord” with the provisions of the Dangerous Substances Law. It indicates that OfReg will use its regulatory powers to take “appropriate action,” though it does not say what action and officials did not respond to requests to clarify.
SOL released a brief statement in response to questions from the Cayman Compass, indicating that it was aware the report had been released and was reviewing its findings before commenting in detail.
Emergency services were called to the Jackson Point terminal just before 5 p.m. on July 23, a Sunday, after an on-site official reported a potential fire inside Tank No. 8.
Firefighters used hi-tech thermal imaging cameras to locate the source of the fire, inside the enclosed tank, and battled until the early hours of the next morning to bring it under control.
In the aftermath of the incident, fire chief David Hails hailed the bravery of his officers, who stood on top of the tank to douse the blaze, knowing the flames could spread at any moment, potentially igniting the whole tank.
The fire was ultimately contained to a lip inside the upper part of the tank, where fuel had collected.
The report indicated that elevated temperatures were observed along the tank shell but these were lower than the flash point required for diesel fuel to ignite.
SOL was forced to write off fuel worth more than $2 million at current pump prices as a result of the incident and Tank No. 8 – one of four tanks at SOL’s terminal – has remained out of service since last July.
OfReg’s report indicates that SOL’s contractor J&R Industrial Services had been carrying out welding work, to patch up parts of the tank, on the weekend of the fire.
The regulator suggests carrying out hot works on an in-service tank is inherently “extremely risky” and the practice should have been endorsed by OfReg and the fire service before being carried out.
It adds that in this case, the state of the tank was not adequate for this type of job. “The repair work, whilst necessary, should not have been carried out using the chosen procedure due to the extent of the degradation of sections of the roof observed by SOL.”
In spite of this concern, it says the incident could have been avoided if the work was carried out properly.
Key concerns highlighted include that the two people on site on that Sunday were not properly trained to respond to the incident. One of them even tried to test for the presence of the fire by gauging the heat using his bare hand against the tank, something the report described as “troubling” at a time when protocols called for the area to be vacated.
It also notes there was a “considerable delay” of around 35 minutes, while the on-site staff called a SOL supervisor in an effort to establish what action to take after observing “scorching on the outside of the tank.
The report also suggests workers ignored an alarm which checks for the presence of combustible gases.
“During welding, the gas detector was reported to have alarmed indicating an abnormal condition, but was ignored and subsequently silenced (reset),” it states.
The Sunday work crew may also have inadvertently used the wrong type of putty for the job, it adds, though inspectors were unable to establish the impact of this oversight.
More generally, OfReg expressed concern about the lack of a detailed written plan for this type of work and the lack of adequate training for those involved. Its investigation found that similar breaches in expected industry standards had occurred in the past.
It concludes, “SOL, through its employees and agents did not take all reasonable precautions for the prevention of the fire in the Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel Tank No. 8.
“The code which SOL relied upon to carry out the work was not found to be supported by any internal policy or document, nor was there any adequate indication that attempts were made to meet the minimum requirement of the relevant code sections.
“Further, the investigation observed that this was likely a repeated deviation, whether circumstantial or unintended, based on the evidence of previous work done on the tank.”
It suggests this approach was “trending towards normal internal practice” and indicates this must be addressed across the industry to prevent future “catastrophic incidents.”
Its recommendations include:
- OfReg to supervise hot works for all premises regulated under the Dangerous Substance Law as an interim measure;
- SOL to conduct full emergency exercise within six months;
- Fast track new certification program for those working in the industry;
- Introduction of sirens at Jackson Point as well as risk assessment and public education for neighbors of the fuel plant in case of future incidents;
- Review of procedures and policies for hot works in the industry.