1997 BPS Explosion

612 words | 3 page(s)

For an emergency manager, explosions are not the most common emergency that occurs. However, they do occur and an emergency manager must be prepared to deal with it, just as with all other emergency situations. One tragic explosion in 1997 resulted in the death of three firefighters. The explosion occurred at the BPS Chemical in the state of Arkansas. This report will discuss the background of the incident, including when and how it occurred. It will also discuss the four phases of emergency management and how they applied to it.

The explosion occurred on May 8, 1997 in the city of West Helena, Arkansas. The community is approximately one and a half hours from Memphis, Tennessee. The explosion occurred at a chemical manufacturing and processing plant. The plant mostly manufactures agricultural chemicals. As a result of the explosion, three firefighters were killed and sixteen other individuals were seriously injured. It also resulted in a fire that was particularly dangerous. “The Arkansas Department of Pollution Control and Ecology had identified the burning chemicals as methomyl, thiophante and azinphos-methyl, phosphate-based substances that are blended for use as a crop pesticide” (The New York Times, 1997).

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It was later determined that BPS did not detect the hazards associated with having a hot pipe in an area with reactive chemicals. This could have been prevented; furthermore, the toxic gases that spread from the fire were a significant concern in the area. Furthermore, the company did not have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the handling of many of its chemicals. Another tragic root cause of the accident is that the company provided incomplete information to the West Helene Fire Department (WHFD) personnel upon their arrival (EPA/OSHA, n.d. p. iii).

The four phases of emergency management are mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. This next section will discuss how this incident used or did not use these phases with regards to the explosion.

Mitigation: This includes actions that are taken prior to the event as a means to ensure that loss of life and property will be minimal. The company did not engage in adequate mitigation of the event. Mitigation would have included frequent inspections that would have noted the location of the pipe and the chemicals nearby. It also would have included proper hazard labeling of the chemicals with regards to their dangers. They also did not have adequate SOPs.

Preparation: The company was not prepared for an explosion. If they were prepared for the explosion, they would have had a person who was prepared to give adequate information to the WHFD. This could have prevented the deaths of three firefighters.

Response: The fire department responded. The explosion resulted in three deaths. The response was inadequate because the firefighters failed to determine if there were dangers with regards to the chemicals and the addition of water to them. However, this likely was due to the poor preparation on the part of the company.

Recovery: There is no true recovery for a community that loses three first responders. However, the company did rebuild in the area; this is important because it is a source of many jobs for members of the community. Therefore, not rebuilding would have had a significant adverse economic impact on the community.

In conclusion, this event could have been prevented. Proper mitigation would have allowed the recognition of the hazard. It also would have prevented the situation from further deterioration with the deaths of the firefighters. Sadly, this is all too common with industrial hazards.

  • EPA/OSHA Joint Report. (n.d.). BPS explosion. Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/
  • The New York Times. (1997, May 9). Explosion kills three firefighters in Arkansas. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com

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