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Explosion at BASF

Bad news from Germany this morning. There’s apparently been a very large explosion at the BASF Ludwigshafen facility. If you’ve ever been through that part of the country, you’ll know that that’s a big site in a very dense industrial area: here’s some video taken a bit earlier today. German media reports are that many people have been injured and many others are missing, which is not a good thing to hear at all.

The explosion appears to have taken place at a pipeline installation in the North Harbor area off the Rhine, but there seems to be detailed no information released yet from BASF or the local authorities about what actually exploded. The Landeshafen-Nord facility handles an awful lot of large quantities of potentially explosive material; both liquids and compressed liquified gases are pumped from tanker ships directly to the rest of the BASF plant. So there are a number of possibilities for both the substances involved and the reason for an explosion. Everything from static electricity on up is a possibility for the latter, and as for the material, the video footage looks like a compressed gas release, but it’s really impossible to say just yet. More details as they become available.

Update: looks like two firefighters were indeed killed, and as I write there’s still one person listed as “missing”. The fire was at two pipelines that handle ethylene and propylene.

30 comments on “Explosion at BASF”

  1. Ksr15 says:

    Oh no! Leave the explosions to the Klapötke group! hope that everyone’s found, and that the injuries aren’t life threatening.

  2. Anon says:

    Unfortunate typo (I hope) on BBC news website:

    “The extent of casualties was initially nuclear from the explosion, which happened shortly before 11:30 (09:30 GMT) on Monday”

    1. loupgarous says:

      Not like the Beeb’s news cycle involves much fact checking. These guys let themselves be Mighty Wurlitzered into repeating Russian propaganda about cobalt-jacketed nuclear warheads on Russian torpedoes.

  3. Bagnar says:

    I have a friend working on this site, in process. Happily for her, it’s her first day of vacation today.

    I hope we will have more details soon. I’ve seen on twitter many people talking about a terror attack…

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      No evidence of terrorism so far, according to news reports, but the situation is understandably still confused. . .

    2. dearieme says:

      That would require the terrorists to have become atypically intelligent.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Or just sufferers from Sudden Jihad Syndrome (SJS) with responsible jobs routing volatile chemicals.

        Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy and former US Navy officer Larry Bond, opens with a similar terrorist scenario in which Muslim jihadis cause a massive conflagration in a Soviet oil refinery, aided by a sympathetic Azerbaijani chemical engineer on the refinery staff who succumbs to SJS.

        It’s probably too much to expect reality not to imitate art in this case.

  4. David says:

    The current status according to German media is one person dead, six missing, six seriously injured persons and one slightly injured person. But the number of slightly injured persons is supposed to be very inaccurate, since many probably went on their own to nearby hospitals. Slightly injured persons (at least the German term for it) can also cover things, some people would not even visit a hospital, like bruises, so this number will be very vague anyway.

  5. steve says:

    I hope that the injuries are indeed minor. However, this brings up an important issue. Just how protected are major chemical factories from terrorists incidents? One can imagine that a well-placed attack could be greatly magnified by release of volatile chemicals. It doesn’t even have to be an armed attack given the capabilities of cyber warfare nowadays.

    1. Mr. Rogers says:

      According to the company and the government, there is currently no indication of terrorism in this case. Also, the BASF facility would seem to be a poor candidate. My recollection from when I lived in Ludwigshafen (late ’80s) is that security was pretty tight. Big fences, visible security, lots of cameras–the place was a likely target of the Red Army Faction. Whether smaller firms with a higher perimeter/area ratio are more vulnerable, I couldn’t say. Cyber is also beyond my expertise (though I would think it foolish to connect such a facility to the internet).

      1. steve says:

        I wasn’t implying that the incident at BASF was terrorism, just that it shows the potential for terrorist at these kinds of facilities. Whether the current security suffices to ward off a determined terrorist attack I don’t know. However, Stuxnet proved that you don’t need an internet connection to attack the logic controllers that run these plants; a program can be delivered in a USB or any other entry point.

    2. loupgarous says:

      Arguably, shipping oil from Canada through the US by rail tank car (instead of by pipeline) is a politically-motivated act which cost lives.

      The beneficiaries of this practice include Obama contributor Warren Buffett (who owns, through Berkshire Hathaway Equities, both the Union Tank Car Company and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways). The deaths were just political bug-splatter.

      1. steve says:

        What in the world does this have to do with anything? Aside from being wrong it’s totally spurious. Some people will just do anything to try and bash the current administration. Please try not to hurt yourself when you twist yourself into knots to try and make your political attacks.

  6. Mr. Rogers says:

    According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the explosion followed a fire on a pipeline trestle in the harbor. The explosion occurred as firefighters were working to fight the fire. Firefighters are among the missing. Barriers have been set up between the harbor and the Rhine. Increases in measured chemicals have not been observed in the Rhine, or in the air of Ludwigshafen or Mannheim. Air sample are being taken by a BASF mobile lab. Btw, the german term being translated as severely injured implies injuries that are likely to keep someone in the hospital for at least 24 hours. Hopefully some of those being treated are being kept for observation following smoke inhalation.

  7. Milkshake says:

    I am curious if the pipe installation in the port contained ethylene oxide by chance

  8. Dave says:

    BBC reporting two fatalities as of 2100 BST.

    See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37676974

    Milkshake – no suggestions of EtO. Simple hydrocarbons sounds more likely.

    1. Mr. Rogers says:

      FAZ reports two fatalities, and only two now missing. No increase in severely injured (still six).

  9. Oliver Hauss says:

    I live pretty close to the site and have several friends working there. The site is so big, however, that many only noticed the incident from media reports on their smartphones or intranet notices. The port is all the way at the north end of the site with most of the key production and R&D facilities well to its south.

    For safety reasons, the steamcracker was powered down, bringing large parts of production to a halt. Now that will be a massive bill to whoever will end up paying, but better safe than sorry.

  10. Raven says:

    I believe , it was caused by human error and not following standard procedure or BASF did not replace their old equipment since they had cut maintenance budget down to 21 % since 2015 accross the globe.

  11. Oliver Hauss says:

    According to the latest press release, the fire has been out since 9:30PM local time. The pipes at issue had ethylene/ethene and propylene/propene in them. Company and municipal fire departments were still working on cooling and securing the location.

    As of 5AM local time, the two missing people still hadn’t been found.

  12. Oliver Hauss says:

    As of 11AM, the number of missing people is down to one.

    Two dead, eight seriously injured, 17 lightly injured. Six were briefly checked at the on-site clinics and could then return to work.

    If I understand the latest report correctly, the two dead employees actually were firemen.

    1. Yazeran says:

      Well the sad truth about disasters involving explosive fires is that the firefighters are the ones in danger.

      A similar thing happened in Seest (near Kolding in Denmark) some 10 years ago where a fireworks factory (which had been there for 40 years, and the suburb had grown around it since) caught fire and some 200 t of fireworks went up in flames and explosions (the largest one 2.2 on the Richter scale) destroying large number of houses nearby (it looked like a war zone).
      One firefighter was killed, but fortunately all civilians had been evacuated before the explosion.

      1. Li Zhi says:

        The 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas killing 15 is a bit more recent. That fire was deliberately started. My gosh, it makes me wonder what the protocols are for dealing with a fire near ethylene/propylene lines or storage – my first response would be to run in the direction opposite the direction the fire control and safety people were moving. I wonder even about evacuation protocols – the site sounds big enough so that I’d guess mass transport (busses) might be the only way the employees could get out. How would evacuation work? by stampede?

        1. Oliver Hauss says:

          The site is huge and the area at issue is at its extreme northern limit (well, there is the water processing plant further north, but it’s separated by a major thoroughfare and not directly connected above ground)

          The site is separated from the major focus of activities by both a rail terminal and numerous storage areas. The site evidently has quite a number of gates and only one of them was affected by the incident.

          Blindly running in whatever direction you feel however would be very ineffective as the whole site sits right alongside the Rhine river, and swimming in there is highly discouraged due to the currents. I have, however, no doubt that evacuation trainings are being done on a regular basis.

  13. Stephan says:

    Update from Rheinpfalz, Süddeutsche and RNZ newspapers:
    One additional body recovered by divers. Total of 3 dead. No more missing persons.
    Firefighter crew chief among the dead. Others presumed to be crew member of nearby dangerous goods tanker and additional firefighter. 6 People still hospitalized in serious condition.
    Dangerous goods tanker loaded with Ethylhexanol was engulfed by flames.
    Required many hours of cooling before it could be safely approached, delaying rescue operations.

  14. Oliver Hauss says:

    Newest report has it that someone used a cutoff grinder on the wrong pipe. They can’t say why or how as the likely person is still in hospital and in no condition to talk at the moment.

  15. Bagnar says:

    A week after that incident, do you have more details ?

    From France, nothing really new in the news. I am looking for more precision on that “wrong pipe” described by Oliver Hauss yesterday.

    Thanks 😉

  16. Cymantrene says:

    The BASF website writes that a cut was find on another pipeline, which was not subject of the planned maintenance work, and which probably contained butane-mixture. It leaked due to the cut, and was ignited.
    https://www.basf.com/en/company/news-and-media/news-releases/2016/10/p-16-359.html

  17. Getheren says:

    Personally, I always reserve comment on the missing, and let them stay in their superposition of states until someone finds them. In events like this, lots of people, quite understandably, run like hell, and some of those take some finding — especially as those officially responsible for the finding typically have Other Things Demanding Their Immediate Attention.

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