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Explosion, fire shut down gas plant
11/30/2007 By: By Carole McWilliams
Explosions and fire shut down the Williams gas plant on County Road 307 early Wednesday morning. Seven employees working at the time got out without injury. Neighbors were evacuated.
A cooling tower exploded at around 3:30 a.m. That was followed by several other explosions and fires that destroyed the processing plant’s control center, two warehouses, an office trailer, a break room and several private vehicles.
Los Pinos Fire Chief Larry Behrens was first on the scene, about seven minutes after the 3:37 a.m. page. “You could see fire coming out of the cooling tower,” he said. That was where it started. The Williams employees had followed their training and were out on the road, all accounted for.
Los Pinos evacuated about three homes closest to the plant, Behrens said. Then Chief Alan Clay and Chief Tony Harwig showed up from Durango Fire & Rescue. Reverse 911 evacuation calls went out to homes in a half mile radius of the plant.
“We set up a command post and tried to determine from the (Williams) personnel what had happened,” Behrens continued. “We determined we would need additional resources.” Calls went out to Upper Pine, Pagosa, Farmington, and San Juan County, N.M.
Behrens said, “It’s one of those things you always train for and hope it never happens. ... The employees said they were working, the electric went out, they stepped out to see what had happened, and the tower exploded. There were secondary explosions that shook the ground after I got there.”
He speculated those might have been gas tanks in employee vehicles that burned, or other pressurized tanks.
None of the fire was fueled by natural gas, he said. After the explosion, employees shut the valves for gas coming into or leaving the plant, and they flared off gas in the plant to purge the system.
The first priority was to make sure the employees, emergency responders, and neighbors were safe, Behrens said.
The plant is in DFRA territory, so command was transferred to them. They and Los Pinos Deputy Chief Tom Aurnhammer directed operations in the plant, assessing hazards firefighters would face, Behrens said.
Sheriff’s Office Special Services Commander Dan Bender said he got there around 4 a.m. The first several hours were spent protecting adjacent buildings at the plant, he said. More aggressive attacks on the fires started after sunrise.
Aurnhammer told the Times on Thursday that as of mid-morning Wednesday, firefighters were mopping up in several places and still had active fire in one building.
At around 10 a.m., employees from the BP plant to the north were evacuated. A sheriff’s deputy had CR 307 blocked just south of the turnoff to the BP plant.
Aurnhammer said firefighters left around 6 p.m. “The joint effort between the people at the plant and the fire department was great,” he said. “We just practiced the drill with their emergency plan about three weeks ago.”
The plant is a major gas supplier, and there will be a market impact from its closure, Behrens speculated. He guessed that about 10 percent of the plant was affected, but that included the control center with all the computers and high tech equipment. All that is gone, he said.
Responders worked out of DFRA’s mobile command center that was paid for by a federal Homeland Security grant. It was parked on private land next to the plant. Two horses wandered nearby, oblivious to the emergency.
According to a news release from DFRA and Williams, the cooling tower is part of the natural gas processing, where liquids such as propane and butane are separated from the gas.
The Southwest Colorado Hazmat Team determined there had been no release of hazardous materials, and the smoke was similar to a regular structure fire and didn’t pose additional health risks to the public, according to the news release. Water runoff was being contained on the site in ponds.
Emergency responders included Williams personnel, Los Pinos, DFRA, La Plata County Sheriff, County Office of Emergency Management, Southern Ute Police, Upper Pine Fire, SW Colorado Hazmat Team, Pagosa Springs Fire Department, Farmington Fire Department, Cedar Hill N.M. Fire Department, San Juan County NM Fire Department, and American Red Cross Southwest Colorado chapter.