By David J. Hill
TOWN OF TONAWANDA —
A chemical explosion at the DuPont Yerkes plant on River Road rocked the town’s industrial corridor late Tuesday morning, killing one contractor and injuring another.
Workers from Mollenberg-Betz, a Buffalo-based mechanical contractor hired by DuPont, were performing maintenance at the top of an empty 10,000 gallon tank when the explosion occurred, Tonawanda Police Lt. Nick Bado said.
“It’s a tall cylindrical type object and they were working at the top of it when it blew back,” he said. “It was a free-standing, large tank on the outside of the building.”
Authorities aren’t sure what triggered the explosion, which is being investigated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and town police. The drum at one point contained polyvinyl fluoride, or PVF, a chemical used in solar panels and the interior of airplanes, according to DuPont’s website.
The explosion killed one worker instantly; another suffered burns and was taken to Erie County Medical Center. “We are deeply saddened that the incident resulted in the fatal injury of a worker at the Yerkes site who was employed by Mollenberg-Betz, a mechanical contractor,” Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.
Neither police nor company officials released the names of the two contractors.
Mollenberg-Betz is a family-owned company located on Scott Street in Buffalo. “Right now it’s a very difficult time for them,” Bado said. “There was one family member brought in to participate in the investigation. It’s a very somber scene back there.”
Police received the initial report of an explosion at the plant, located at 3115 River Road, at 11:09 a.m., Bado said.
A DuPont spokesman said the tank being worked on was empty and had been taken out of service for maintenance.
“While workers were welding equipment connected to the tank, an explosion took place which resulted in the injuries. The incident was limited to the equipment that was being worked on and the process involved has been shut down,” the company’s statement says.
Residents roughly a mile away felt the blast. Shortly after the explosion, residents who live in the industrial area near the DuPont plant were told to close their doors and windows as a precaution. Bado said there was never any threat to human health.
“At this point we do not believe there was any hazardous material released to the environment,” DuPont said in its statement, adding that the site was not evacuated.
“The exact cause of the explosion is unknown at this time,” Town of Tonawanda police said in a statement. “Several internal investigations into the accident are forthcoming. ... The police department is considering this to be an industrial accident but will be continuing to investigate.”
Crews from several area fire departments, including the Town and City of Tonawanda and Grand Island, responded to the scene, along with representatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting an investigation, and DuPont also is reviewing the incident to determine what caused the explosion.
Officials said the plant, which employs 700, has a pretty good safety record. “I’ve been with the police department 14 years and we’ve never been here for anything of this nature,” Bado said.
In 2002, the plant received a governor’s award for pollution prevention, according to the DEC, which lauded the plant for implementing five waste reduction projects that helped DuPont reduce its landfill material by 867,000 pounds, saving $2 million.
In addition to the Town of Tonawanda, DuPont also operates facilities in Niagara Falls and Rochester.