Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2018

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One killed, three injured in southern Utah plant explosion

The explosion at the isolated Western Electrochemical Co. plant 10 miles west of here damaged one building and caused a fire that sent up a plume of non-toxic smoke.

The plant manufactures both ammonium perchlorate - used in virtually all solid-propellant rocket motors - and sodium azide, a chemical used to explode air bags in cars.

City fire Capt. Neil Gentry said it was unknown exactly what caused the blast but that the employees were working near ammonium perchlorate. The plant's owner said the workers may have been trying to clear a plugged dust collector.

Ammonium perchlorate comprises 70 percent of the 1.1 million pounds of propellent Thiokol Corp. uses in each motor for the space shuttle. The ingredient provides oxygen for combustion of the propellent.

Four engines and about 22 firefighters responded after the explosion occurred just before 9 a.m., Gentry said.

WECCO is a subsidiary of American Pacific Corp. in Las Vegas.

Its President and Chief Executive Officer John R. Gibson said there were conflicting eyewitness accounts about the dust collector.

``The cause of the obstruction is the matter of intense focus and investigation,'' Gibson said.

He also said he has called Gov. Mike Leavitt to assure him that an initial review of the company's safety inspections indicates WECCO is in compliance will all applicable regulatory standards.

``Although there was only damage to one small and confined area of the facility, and the production of ammonium perchlorate has not been interrupted, that does not detract from the tragic loss of human life and the pain endured by those who were injured,'' Gibson said.

The identity of the man killed in the blast was not released by the sheriff's office or fire department, which said that information would have to come from the company.

Sue Whitaker of Rogich Communications Group, American Pacific's public relations firm in Las Vegas, said the company would not be releasing additional information beyond what was contained in its news release, including the victim's identity.

Ron Meachum, 44, one of the injured employees, was listed in extremely critical condition Wednesday at the Intermountain Burn Unit at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, said hospital spokesman Chris Nelson.

Meachum was transported to the burn center from Valley View Medical Center in Cedar City. He suffered burns to more than 50 percent of his body, as well as ``inhalation injuries,'' said Valley View spokeswoman Sandy Gillies.

The other three employees were treated and released for minor burns and ``ear ringing,'' she said. Their names were not immediately available.

Iron County Attorney Scott Burns, who inspected the plant building, said the back of the structure sustained some damage.

``It was not severe destruction,'' Burns said.

It was determined, he said, that the explosion was an industrial accident.

Bob Dreman, compliance manager for the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division, said two investigators were dispatched to the plant Wednesday to determine if any state standards were violated.

The Western Electrochemical plant was built to replace a plant at Henderson, Nev., which was destroyed by a series of explosions and fire in May 1988 that killed two people and injured more than 300.

The 1988 explosion blew cars off a highway a half-mile away and sent dozens of factory workers fleeing for their lives. Damage to the plant and surrounding community exceeded $74 million.

Residents were so shaken by the incident that plant owners decided it would be futile to try to rebuild the plant in Nevada. They opted for a remote site outside Cedar City, 150 miles to the east and 221 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

The owner of the plant, Pacific Engineering and Production Co., or Pepcon, was fined $36,000 by Nevada for safety hazards. Fire inspectors determined a welding torch ignited hundreds of thousands of pounds of stored ammonium perchlorate.

American Pacific is Pepcon's parent company and formed WECCO.