Safety Should Truly Come First

By Jessica Sobolik | October 14, 2008
The theme of this November issue is alternative feedstocks. We have many informative features in this issue focusing on animal fats, grease, jatropha, camelina and algae, among others. However, for this month's editor's note, I want to focus on a different topic: biodiesel plant safety.

Staff Writer Kris Bevill wrote a feature about this in our October issue, titled "Handling Hot Work Hazards," which was spurred by a rash of fires and explosions at biodiesel plants that are sadly becoming too common. Since she wrote that feature, there have been two more plant fires-at All-American Biodiesel in York, N.D. (see BIObyte on page 18), and Nova Biosource Fuels Inc. in Clinton, Iowa.

Thankfully, no one was seriously injured in either fire, although a firefighter who responded to Nova Biosource Fuels sustained minor steam burns. At press time, the cause of that fire was unknown, and the extent of the damage was being assessed. The North Dakota Fire Marshal Division concluded that the fire at All-American Biodiesel started in an area that held electrical equipment, but an exact cause was not determined.

Bevill's feature mostly focused on welding issues, which caused two biodiesel plant fires earlier this year. In the safety breakout session at this year's International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, I asked representatives of companies that work to prevent industrial accidents why these welding accidents were happening. The answer surprised and saddened me. They said welders often work for third-party companies outside the biodiesel plant and have no idea what type of industry they're dealing with. They aren't in charge of making sure a tank has been properly emptied or that valves are functioning properly. They are simply shown a pipe and asked to weld it. That could be one scenario, but I'm sure there are others. Of course, no one intends for these accidents to happen, but once they do, biodiesel plant managers most likely wish they had been more vigilant with their fire safety.

Unfortunately, by that time, it's too late.

My dad is a retired firefighter, and so oftentimes when I was growing up, he would check our house for fire hazards-a stack of old newspapers, lint built up behind the clothes
dryer, too many electronics plugged into one outlet, etc. This should be a regular practice at biodiesel plants, as well. Hazards should be continually identified and corrected.

Equipment should be well-maintained. It's true that accidents happen, but if the proper steps are taken, they should happen less often.

Jessica Sobolik
Managing Editor
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