WASHINGTON -- The cause of a May 1 fire and explosion at a Louisiana fertilizer plant in which eight people died and 120 were injured remains unknown, a congressional panel was told Monday.
An investigation so far indicates a fire began in the vicinity of a compressor in the nitroparaffin plant at Sterlington, said Billie Turner, chairman and chief executive officer of IMC Fertilizer Group Inc.
A fire alarm, he said, was followed quickly by an explosion in a distillation column used to purify the nitroparaffin, a nitrogen compound.
The explosion destroyed the unit and damaged a nearby hospital and area residences. The entire population of the community of 1,500 was evacuated for more than 24 hours.
Turner spoke to the subcommittee on employment and housing of the House Committee on Government Operations.
The panel is looking at Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for the petrochemical industry and at OSHA's cooperative agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency on hazards in the community.
Prior to the May 1 incident, there had not been a single fatality in the nitroparaffin plant since it began operation in 1956, Turner said.
'Let me say that no words can convey our sorrow over the loss of friends and loved ones as a result of that incident,' Turner told the subcommittee today. 'I personally, along with all of our employees and the Angus organization, share the grief and loss suffered.'
Turner said his company had a long record of safety and safety programs at the plant, owned by Angus Chemical Co. and operated by IMC Fertilizer.
All of the fatalities were IMC Fertilizer employees, including a company vice president and plant manager James Shipp.
Turner said 120 people received some type of medical treatment and four still were in hospitals.
'We and Angus are proud of the safety history of our Sterlington employees and have always considered the safety of persons, property and the environment to be matters of primary importance,' Turner said.
'Our corporate effort includes individual safety-awareness programs, a company-wide safety committee, intense on-site training and complete support from all levels of management to make our mines and plants the safest possible.'
IMC Fertilizer, based in Northbrook, Ill., produces and markets phosphate rock and potash and makes phosphate chemicals and ammonia as major crop-producing nutrients for agriculture worldwide.
The company has operated the nitroparaffin plant, which is adjacent to the IMC Fertilizer ammonia facility, since Angus bought that business from International Minerals & Chemical Corp. in 1982.