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Hazardous gas blamed in Beaver County power plant deaths

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Tom Fontaine | Tribune-Review
Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport
ptrpowerdead01083117
Tom Fontaine | Tribune-Review
Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport

A common but potentially hazardous gas that can smell like rotten eggs killed two workers and injured three others Tuesday night at Beaver County’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant.

Hydrogen sulfide gas was released when workers removed an elbow joint from a pipe at the Shippingport plant, Pennsylvania state police reported.

The gas incapacitated the workers, killing Kevin Patrick Bachner and John Michael Gorchock.

“From our end, it just looks like a terrible accident,” Trooper Ronald Kesten said.

The five workers were inside a confined pit, similar to a well, doing maintenance work when they removed the elbow joint about 11:30 p.m. The pipe was supposed to be shut down, police told WPXI, the Trib’s news partner.

Bachner, 34, and Gorchock, 42, both of Pittsburgh, could not make it out of the pit.

Mark Wagner, 31, of Pulaski; Thomas Cantwell, 31, of Crafton; and Michael Gorchock, 43, of Pittsburgh made it out of the pit and went to area hospitals with injuries. Their conditions were not available Wednesday.

Enerfab Corp. employed the two workers who were killed, company CEO Scott Anderson said.

“We’re reaching out to their families and very supportive of them,” Anderson said.

Enerfab is conducting its own investigation and is cooperating with other investigators, he said. Enerfab has an office in the Bridgeville area that opened in 1994 to provide industrial construction and related services to the power industry and general industrial facilities, according to the company’s website.

Stephanie Walton, a spokeswoman for the plant’s owner, FirstEnergy Corp., said the company is conducting its own investigation. Walton said the plant was operational throughout the day on Wednesday and that the accident didn’t pose a threat to public safety or other employees.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating.

Police originally reported two workers were in an underground pit when a pipe ruptured and filled the pit with sludge and that four people standing above the pit were overcome by toxic gas and injured.

Hydrogen sulfide is a fairly common gas that most everyone has smelled at some point, said Jeffrey Hicks, an industrial hygienist in Oakland, Calif. At low concentrations, the gas smells like rotten eggs. The gas and its trademark smell is common around oil refineries, dairies and sewage plants.

The unpleasant smell of the gas typically keeps people away, Hicks said.

At higher concentrations, however, the gas can paralyze a person’s sense of smell. It is at those higher concentrations that the gas also becomes deadly. It can paralyze a person’s ability to inhale, causing them to suffocate, Hicks said.

Hydrogen sulfide is one of the leading causes of workplace gas inhalation deaths in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gas caused 60 worker deaths between 2001 and 2010, the agency reported.

Hydrogen sulfide can be present at coal-fired power plants as a byproduct of pollution-control measures, Hicks said. To catch sulfur gases from escaping, power plants may use limestone scrubbers. The reaction with sulfur turns the limestone into gypsum, which released hydrogen sulfide as it degrades over time through bacteria.

Asphyxiation from hydrogen sulfide occurs quickly, Hicks said.

Beaver County Coroner David Gabauer said Wednesday morning that his office was notifying the victims’ family members and declined to release any information.

Bruce Mansfield is FirstEnergy’s largest coal-fired power plant, according to the corporation’s website. The $1.4 billion facility along the Ohio River employs about 350 people and covers 473 acres.

Renatta Signorini and Aaron Aupperlee are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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