Top stories of 2009, No. 5: Explosions at Silver Eagle Refinery

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WOODS CROSS -- Two explosions, four people seriously injured and dozens of homes damaged; The Silver Eagle refinery explosions -- one at the beginning of the year, one at the end -- became one of this year's top stories.

The Silver Eagle Refinery was first rocked in January of this year. A large vapor cloud escaped from an atmospheric storage tank and found an ignition source, resulting in an explosion and fire that took 11 hours to put out.

Four workers, who'd been doing maintenance right next to the explosion, suffered serious burns.

"He did fall down, and someone had to go back and help him up, and that's why he ended up getting worse burns than the rest of them," Doug Harter said about his brother, Timothy, who was one of the injured workers. Timothy had third degree burns on his face and hands after he had to run through the fire to escape.

Some neighbors were forced from their homes.

"They tell me, ‘This is the police. You need to evacuate immediately,'" a neighbor said.

Resident Aaron Evarts says he was never told about any potential blast zone when he bought his home. "How did the city decide it was safe to zone for residential use?" he asked.

But Woods Cross Mayor Kent Parry said a developer's engineering firm said it was safe in 2002. "That's all we can expect of our city officials to do, is make judgments based on the information that they're given," he said.

The Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency based out of Washington, D.C., flew to Utah to investigate the explosion.

"The CSB is investigating a history of vapor leaks from tank 105," lead investigator Don Holmstrom said.

Today, their report is still not complete. But that wouldn't be the CSB's only trip to Utah this year.

In November, another explosion rocked the refinery. While there were no injuries, there was significant property damage. More than a dozen homes were damaged; Linda Woods' home was condemned.

"My front door was wide open when I got here; my garage wouldn't go up," Woods told KSL News. "It is totaled. The whole back end is blown out. All the cupboards were blown out."

Paul Chavez said he didn't know if there was an earthquake or a train derailed. "I would say [it] was similar to a bomb going off," he said.

Neighbors highlighted a string of problems with the refinery: five explosions or fires within six years. For the first time, a Silver Eagle Refinery representative spoke to the media.

"If you take a look at the number of OSHA violations issued over the past 10 years, you'll find two of our refining neighbors have better records than ours and two are worse. We're right smack in the middle," said Silver Eagle safety manager Dan Beecher.

This time, Chemical Safety Board investigators recommended the refinery be shut down temporarily; Silver Eagle managers agreed.

In a press conference, the lead investigator revealed the explosion was caused by a catastrophic failure in a 10-inch pipe that's thickness measured just an eighth of an inch.

CSB investigators believe an outside contractor incorrectly inspected equipment throughout the refinery. They say Silver Eagle officials were aware of it, had fired the company and were working to correct the problem. But on Nov. 4, their time ran out, and many neighbors say so did their trust in the refinery.

The refinery is currently shut down. There's no word on if, or when, it will start up again.

The Chemical Safety Board has not yet issued their final reports for either explosion. OSHA has not released their findings either.


Story compiled with contributions from Sarah Dallof and Paul Nelson.

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