December 8, 2012
Hancock plant blaze, two years later
CSB drops investigation, Feds stalls new laws
AP Photo
Firefighters battle a fire at the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, W.Va., on Dec. 9, 2010.
Courtesy photo
Thirty-nine-year-old Jeffrey Scott Fish (left) and his brother, 38-year-old James Eugene Fish, were two of the three workers who died in a Dec. 9, 2010, fire at AL Solutions in New Cumberland, Hancock County.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2010, Jeffrey Scott Fish, James Eugene Fish and Steven Swain were at work at AL Solutions, a small metals recycling plant along the Ohio River in New Cumberland.

Outside the Hancock County facility, witnesses heard a loud thud and metal hitting the floor. An explosion ripped through the building. Flames shot in all directions.

The two Fish brothers, 39 and 38 years old, died inside from heat and smoke inside the building. Swain, 27, made it out, but suffered burns over most of his body. He died four days later in a Pittsburgh hospital.

Two years later, AL Solutions quietly continues to fight federal workplace safety citations related to the incident. Lawyers for the family still file papers in their pursuit of a lawsuit against the company's Wall Street ownership.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's Department of Labor continues to sit on rules that could help prevent combustible dust fires like the one that killed Swain and the Fish brothers.

And now, the federal Chemical Safety Board is on the verge of dropping its investigation into the AL Solutions fire. Agency officials cite budget and staffing constraints, and say completing the probe would likely not provide much new information about the dangers of combustible dust.

"It fits into the broader problem with the lack of dust regulation in the United States," said Daniel Horowitz, the board's managing director. "I'm not sure how much impact one additional case has on that overall picture."

For years, the CSB has been urging labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set standards to protect workers from combustible dust explosions and fires.

In a landmark 2006 report, the board identified 281 dust fires and explosions that killed 119 workers and injured 718 others between 1980 and 2006. Last year, the board said there had since been another 17 deaths in dust incidents -- including the three fatalities at AL Solutions. The Center for Public Integrity, which has investigated the issue extensively, reports that these numbers are likely significant understatements.

"The CSB has concluded that combustible dust explosions are a serious hazard in American industry, and that existing efforts inadequately address this hazard," the board said in its report, released six years ago last month.

Initially under the Obama administration, OSHA announced plans to take up the CSB's recommendations for a combustible dust standard. Earlier this year, OSHA moved the matter to its "long-term" agenda, and said it had no timetable for issuing even a draft rule.

"This means we are continuing to work on this project but we are not projecting a next action and date at this time," agency officials said earlier this year.

Agency officials did not respond to a request for an interview with OSHA chief David Michaels for this story.

'The highest quality product'

Located near Weirton in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle, the AL Solutions plant recycles titanium and zirconium. On its website, the firm touts "proprietary technology to recycle" these metals into "high quality alloying additions to aluminum."

"We are focused to deliver the highest quality product and service to our customers while also providing a valuable recycling outlet to the titanium and zirconium processing industries," the company says.

But the December 2010 incident wasn't the first time workers died at the New Cumberland facility.

Under the previous owners, a company called Jamegy Inc., a worker was killed in August 1995 by a hydrocarbon leak that caused a fireball, according to OSHA records. The company paid a $500 fine for a serious workplace safety violation.

Then, in July 2006, also under Jamegy's ownership, a worker died in a fire that occurred while he was cleaning excess zirconium scrap from the bottom of a mixing tank. Jamegy paid $5,100 in fines.

After the July 2006 death, federal safety inspectors didn't step foot in the New Cumberland facility again for more than four years -- until they responded to the December 2010 fire.

The day of the fire, Jeffrey "Scotty" Fish was known, was operating a blender that mixes titanium and zirconium into a homogenous material. Jimmy Fish and Steven Swain were running presses that compact the material into hockey puck-shaped disks.

Investigators still aren't sure what sparked the fire, and say they might never know. It could have been a spark-producing tool, or a lack of proper grounding and bonding of metal processing equipment, federal officials have said.

The facility had no instrumentation, so there's really no data on conditions leading up to the incident. All three workers who were inside the building at the time died, so there are no eyewitnesses to interview.

But federal investigators say they do know that AL Solutions had not installed an effective vacuum or other system to control dust in the building where the incident occurred, despite internal design documents that recommended limiting dust in the area.

"The company had taken to storing this metal dust inside this room, and previously they had been told to limit the amount of flammables in the room, and over time that had eroded until they were storing lots of barrels of this combustible dust in this room," said CSB investigator Mark Wingard.

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