OSHA launches investigation at plant that exploded

The Columbus Foods Co. vegetable oil and biodiesel plant in Humboldt Park that was the site of an explosion this morning has no history of complaints or enforcement actions with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency official says.

“There has been no prior history that I’ve seen related to OSHA inspections,” says David Banas, the acting area director of OSHA’s Calumet City office, which covers Chicago.

Banas says his office has already sent officers to the scene of the explosion, but could say little else about the accident.

“The investigation has been initiated as to why this explosion has occurred,” Banas says. “Otherwise we’re pretty limited as to what we can say at this time.”

OSHA is a federal agency that deals with workplace safety issues.

According to a 1996 Associated Press article, Columbus Foods had about 65 employees and made more than 50 different types of oil. The approximately 65-year-old family-owned company got a $200,000 grant in 1996 to start a biodiesel plant.

Two workers were seriously injured when the explosion occurred at about 9 a.m., sending a cloud of chemicals into the air and prompting the evacuation of some nearby buildings. Workers were apparently mixing chemicals, which ignited the explosion, according to media reports. Some streets in the vicinity of the plant, at North Albany Avenue and West Grand Avenue, remain closed as of 11:15.

At Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park, hospital workers were preparing to receive patients in case they needed treatment. A hazmat tent was set up outside the hospital, and hospital staff said they were prepared to treat or decontaminate the injured. Early Friday afternoon, however, no patients had been transferred to the hospital.

Three Metra lines that run adjacent to the plant had been shut down this morning but are now open again, a Metra spokesman says. Trains on the Milwaukee West, Milwaukee North and North Central Service are running up to an hour behind schedule right now, though the trains should be running on time by rush hour, the spokesman says.

After we published the original story, we heard from John Astad, the director of the Combustible Dust Policy Institute, a consulting firm in Texas that focuses on industrial and refinery safety issues. Astad maintains an interactive map of explosions and fires at biodiesel plants across the U.S. (As of this writing, it doesn't include the Columbus Foods explosion):


View Biodiesel Plant Explosions/Fires in a larger map


Samantha Liss and Alex Parker contributed to this article.



SANJEEV SARAF, 07-20-2009

The biodiesel and ethanol industry have been experiencing fire and explosion incidents for quite some time. Read the following:

Biofuel Safety: Is it time for bio-PSM?