Kleen Energy Blast Victim's Widow Testifies

Jodi Thomas testified on safety standards of local power plants. Her husband Ronald Crabb was killed in the Kleen Energy explosion. (BROOKE LAVALLEY)

The widow hushed the packed chamber and veteran safety officials jolted it as a congressional subcommittee investigating the deadly natural gas explosion at the Kleen Energy power plant Feb. 7 heard testimony Monday at city hall.

"I find it bizarre that the owners would spend $1.3 billion to build the [ Middletown] plant, then use this inherently dangerous process and basically blow it up and kill people,'' John Bresland, former chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Joseph Courtney, John Larson and Chris Murphy.

That the explosion, which came as natural gas was being forced through pipelines at tremendous pressure, was preventable makes the deaths of the six men all the harder to accept, said Jodi Thomas, widow of worker Ronald Crabb of Colchester, a father of two.

"The manner and cause of Ron's death have only compounded our family's grief. This tragedy should never, ever have happened. … This is why I urge you, please, do not allow Ron's death to be in vain. Real change, real protection for hardworking Americans, must come out of this,'' Thomas told the panel.

The family of Raymond Dobratz, 58, of Old Saybrook, another worker killed in the explosion, sat in the audience at the hearing.

Panel members said they were stunned that power plants and factories were still using natural gas to clean pipelines when the process has been linked to 10 deaths and 100 injuries at explosions in Middletown and Garner, N.C., in the past year.

"Banning gas seems like a no-brainer,'' Murphy said. "Why are we still doing it?"

The experts said the process is quicker and cheaper than safer alternatives such as using "mechanical pigs" — devices propelled through a pipeline to clean it — or nitrogen.

Courtney said that 125 new gas-fired power plants will be built throughout the country in the next five years, including several in Connecticut, and he said it was critical that Congress pass national standards for pipeline blow-downs and purges.

The congressional members held the hearing to aid the House Education and Labor Committee as it tries to reform a regulatory landscape dominated by private industry and lacking teeth on the state and federal levels.

A courtyard full of pent-up natural gas erupted behind the Middletown plant, killing six workers and injuring at least 26. The blast prompted a criminal probe, multiple state and federal investigations, and recommendations by the chemical safety board to ban using natural gas to clear debris from pipelines at power plants. The industry has resisted those prohibitions before, and none of the experts who testified Monday expected the industry-laden national safety code committees to change their positions now, despite the Middletown blast and a natural gas explosion at the ConAgra plant in Garner, N.C., in June 2009 that killed four workers and injured 67.

Glenn Corbett, a national expert on safety codes and an associate professor of protection management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it was "unfathomable'' to him that natural-gas blow-downs are still in vogue. He said a possible motive of plant owners and operators was to save money and time. He said the technical committees of the National Fire Protection Association, which establishes fire and safety codes, are disproportionately made up of industry representatives.

"There's an imbalance,'' Corbett said.

The expert witnesses said that no safety meeting was held at the Middletown plant before work began on Super Bowl Sunday — and none is required by law. The South Fire District fire marshal's office was notified of gas blows at the plant on Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, but no fire officials attended. There is no legal requirement that local fire department representatives be present during the procedure. The South Fire District responded to the blast and its personnel remained on the scene for 28 days.

Former Senior U.S. District Judge Alan Nevas, who was chairman of a state panel that examined the causes of the blast, said that there are no national standards governing gas blow-downs and that no agency has general oversight responsibility — although he said he expects that to change quickly in Connecticut.

Construction work has resumed at the ravaged Middletown plant, and the owners, which include general contractor O&G Industries of Torrington, expect to start operating in April 2011. Before the blast, the deadline to begin power generation was November 2010, and the owners have applied to the Connecticut Siting Council for an extension. A public hearing on that request will be held Aug. 3.

South Fire District Chief Edward Badamo said that the relationship between his department and power plant officials "has grown more inclusive.''

Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano said he is still at a loss to understand why a Jan. 30 gas blow went off without a hitch, and the one eight days later ended in tragedy.

"The margin for error is very, very small,'' said Giuliano.

Thomas, in her emotional testimony, called for stiffer penalties against companies that violate safety standards, greater protections for workers and a reform of procedures at natural gas power plants. The hearings were called by the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.

In a nod to suspicions that the plant's owners and the general contractor might have been in line for a bonus for early completion of the plant, Thomas, in a halting voice, said that financial incentives for heightened work schedules should be outlawed.

Thomas, a lawyer and probate judge in Connecticut, said her husband's work schedule increased from 40 hours a week to 84 when he was hired by an instrumentation subcontractor about two weeks before the explosion.

She said that she and her husband spoke about the Kleen Energy job nearly every night.

But one night, the 42-year-old father of two boys never came home.

For 6-year-old Dylan, the loss of his father has "shattered the security of his world. He's worried something is going to happen to me now," Thomas said.

She said her grief over her husband's death has coalesced into "profound heartache."

Those killed along with Crabb and Dobratz were Peter Chepulis, 48, of Thomaston; Chris Walters, 48, of Florissant, Mo.; Kenneth Haskell, 37, of New Durham, N.H.; and Roy Rushton, 36, of Hamilton, Ontario.