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Officials probe Struthers explosion; workers still critical



Published: Sat, March 3, 2012 @ 12:10 a.m.

Struthers sewage treatment plant

2 workers still critical

By Robert Guttersohn

rguttersohn@vindy.com

Struthers

Authorities still don’t know the source of the methane gas that exploded at the city’s sewage- treatment plant, severely injuring two men.

Nick Jordan, the assistant plant manager, said Friday he believes methane built up inside the facility that houses two large machines called digesters.

The two victims — Ken Stiver, the plant’s lead maintenance man, and Gary Wilson, the assistant maintenance man — were flown from the scene to Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, where a nursing supervisor on Friday said both were in critical condition. Stiver was in intensive care Friday night. Wilson was in the burn-trauma unit.

Struthers Fire Chief Gary Mudryk said the two suffered burns over 90 percent of their bodies.

Mudryk said the fire department was on the scene for more than four hours after the explosions about 1:30 p.m. Thursday. He said they tested all the rooms to make sure there was no more gas present before leaving Thursday evening.

He said the only operation halted at the plant involved the digesters, which begin the breaking-down process of the human and industrial waste, or sludge. The digesters use the methane emitted from the sludge and combine it with natural gas to run generators that heat the waste for processing.

Jordan said until investigators from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation find the cause of the gas buildup, the digesters will not run. Instead, he said, the digesters will hold sewage only until they reach capacity. If that happens, the plant will skip the digester step and run the sewage through a filter press, which separates water from the waste, Jordan said.

From there, the waste will be transported to a waste dump, which Jordan said is environmentally safe.

Those at the plant told The Vindicator that the explosion shattered the windows of the building in which the two men worked and the windows of the adjacent facility only feet away.

Jordan, who was one of the first in the building, said Stiver and Wilson were coherent.

He said the two had been working on electric wiring and that might have triggered a spark.

Doug Kaple, a safety compliance investigator from BWC, said methane is odorless and highly flammable, but he was hard-pressed to think of the last time an explosion occurred at a public treatment plant.

He will be investigating the accident throughout next week.

The state fire marshal’s office found no evidence of criminal intent, according to a press release.

The fire marshal hopes to get a statement from the two victims once they are able to speak, and until then, the investigation remains open.

While workers swept shards of glass and replaced shattered windows, Jordan was left wondering what went wrong and sent the two workers he described as “great Struthers men” to the hospital.

“Where did the gas come from? I don’t know,” he said. “But we need to learn to prevent this from ever happening again.”


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