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Feds investigate Texas plant fire that killed 1

Federal and state officials are investigating what caused a fire at a refinery east of Houston that killed one worker and whether the sprawling plant violated safety, environmental or labor regulations, officials said Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal and state officials are investigating what caused a fire that killed one worker at a natural gas producer east of Houston, a plant that since 2004 has paid thousands of dollars in fines for serious violations that included at least one other death.

The latest incident at the sprawling Enterprise Products facility in Mont Belvieu occurred Tuesday, when fire erupted from what may have been a ruptured pipeline that was carrying natural gas. The remains of worker Rick Shaw were found late Wednesday, more than 24 hours after the fire began.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its investigation Tuesday, shortly after the fire started, spokeswoman Elizabeth Todd said. Details of the probe will be made public once it is complete, she added.

Two state agencies will also investigate the plant's pipeline safety and whether it violated air emission standards, while Enterprise conducts its own probe. Enterprise did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Thursday.

The plant has already paid nearly $30,000 in fines since 2004 for a variety of violations classified by OSHA as serious, including three citations surrounding a 2005 flash fire that burned and killed a worker who was overseeing a valve replacement.

About one-third of the nation's oil is refined along the Texas Gulf Coast, an area covered with massive plants, mazes of pipes and towering industrial stacks. The economy is reliant on the oil and gas industry, and fires, accidents and explosions are not uncommon. Residents sometimes joke that the sweet stench of petroleum is the smell of money and are accustomed to "shelter in place" orders, when they are forced to rush inside and shut all their windows and doors until a danger -- including toxic chemical releases -- passes.

In September, two workers at BP's Texas City refinery -- the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others -- were rushed to the hospital with steam burns. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating the facility for an apparent 41-day benzene release that coincided with BP's involvement in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In May, thick, black smoke could be seen for miles when a fire erupted at a 700-acre facility owned by LyondellBasell Industries. No one was injured in that incident.

In 2005, Enterprise settled with OSHA to pay just over $12,000 in fines -- down from the $18,900 the federal agency initially levied on the company for the fatal incident that the report says was caused when "an unexpected release of flammable petroleum under pressure was ignited by a nearby production compressor."

A year earlier, the federal agency launched at least a dozen investigations into Enterprise's Mont Belvieu operations, forcing the company to pay $7,600 in penalties for the serious violations.

In 2008 and 2009, OSHA again probed 10 violations at the plant, eight of them serious. Enterprise paid $7,900 in fines for those incidents -- down from the initial $26,000 OSHA had demanded.