OBITUARIES: Decatur | Shoals | Huntsville
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Explosion felt far and wide
Officials say high-pressure pipe rupture to blame
By Tom Smith and Bernie Delinski -
Matt McKean/TimesDaily
An explosion Tuesday at Cherokee Nitrogen injured one employee, but was contained to the facility, officials said. The explosion rattled homes throughout the Shoals.

CHEROKEE — Cherokee Nitrogen officials continue to investigate an apparent pipe rupture that caused an explosion that was felt and heard around the Shoals.

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration official arrived at the plant Wednesday afternoon,

The explosion Tuesday night blew tin siding off the plant where workers make ammonia, injuring one employee, but it appears the incident was contained, officials said.

The explosion was reported at 10:10 p.m., startling Cherokee residents and rattling homes throughout the region.

John Carver, vice president of safety and environmental compliance, LSB Industries, the parent company of plant owner El Dorado Nitrogen, said the cause appears to be from a high-pressure pipe used in the ammonia-making process.

“It’s very, very early in our investigation, but basically we had a high-pressure rupture of some piping in a heat exchanger that’s part of our ammonia manufacturing process,” Carver said. “The unit had been down a few days for repairs, and we were in the process of restarting the entire ammonia plant.”

He said a contract worker who sustained a laceration to the head received stitches.

“One other employee (Wednesday) morning complained of aches and pains from being pushed against the wall during the pressure wave and he was sent to our company doctor just to be evaluated,” Carver said.

“We were blessed we had nothing but minor lacerations to the one employee.”

He said a portion of tin siding from the ammonia-compressor building was blown off during the explosion.

“That appears at this point to be the primary property damage,” Carver said.

“There was no release of air emissions, no off-site consequences.”

The ammonia portion of the facility remains down, but other portions are operating, Carver said. About 115 employees work at the facility.

“The ammonia-plant portion will be down for some time while we make repairs,” he said. “Basically we’ll be replacing the heat exchanger.”

Mike Melton, director of Colbert County Emergency Management Agency, said it appears no dangerous substances were released.

“There was nothing on fire, nothing leaking after the event, so everything was contained to the facility,” Melton said. “It wasn’t a major issue off premises.”

After the explosion, crews at the plant immediately accounted for all employees. The injured employee, Bobby Williams, was taken to Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield. A hospital spokeswoman confirmed he was treated and released.

Melton said plant officials issued reports to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and Environmental Protection Agency.

“To the best of my knowledge, it was only residue that exploded,” he said. “Nothing leaked or anything like that.”

Melton said two nearby industries, Linde Gas and Nelson Brothers, evacuated employees as a precaution.

According to the company website, in November 2000, El Dorado Nitrogen, based in El Dorado, Ark., acquired the Cherokee manufacturing plant from LaRoche Industries. El Dorado Nitrogen is a subsidiary of LSB Industries, headquartered in Oklahoma City, Okla. The plant in Colbert County operates as Cherokee Nitrogen Division and produces ammonia, regular nitric acid, ammonium nitrate solution and prill, and other ammonia-related solutions. The plant also produces high purity ammonia for refrigeration and metallurgical applications.

Bill Giles, who retired as manager at the plant in 1997 when it still was LaRoche, said natural gas is the raw material used in the production of ammonia.

“It goes through a series of processes to get a mixture of nitrogen and hydrogen,” Giles said. “This mixture of gas is compressed up to about 4,500 pounds, very high pressures, and it’s converted over a catalyst in a high-pressure reactor to make the ammonia.”

Giles said the reason there was no fire likely is because nothing in the plant would sustain a blaze. “It’s all steel,” he said.

He said there always is a danger when dealing with the materials, high pressures and temperatures used at the plant.

“No matter how many inspections you do, how many safety rules you have, there’s a chance,” Giles said. “That was my biggest fear when I was there.”

Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or

Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or

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