Louisville sewer explosions
The blasts were caused by the ignition of hexane vapors which had been illegally discharged from a Ralston Purina soybean processing plant located near the University of Louisville. The plant, located on Floyd Street, was long recognizable for its large, landmark silos, visible from Eastern Parkway and Interstate 65 until the site's demolition in 2014.
There were no fatalities, but Ralston Purina paid $18 million to the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District and more than $8.9 million to 16,000 plaintiffs in a lawsuit settled in 1984. The company admitted that it released hexane into the sewers, but denied negligence.
The Ralston Purina plant used hexane as a solvent to extract oil from soybeans. The plant employed a containment system designed to recycle used hexane from the process back to the plant. However, the containment system was not functioning that night, and a large quantity (estimated to be between several hundred and several thousand gallons) of hexane was released into the sewers. The hexane began to vaporize in the sewers and slowly began to seep out of manholes in the streets.
At approximately 5:16 a.m. on Friday, February 13, 1981, explosions ripped through the southern part of Old Louisville near the University of Louisville. The cause of the explosions was eventually traced to a spark from a car near the intersection of 12th & Hill Streets, which ignited the hexane fumes in the sewers. The car was thrown onto its side from the force of the blast, and there was extensive damage to area homes, businesses, and streets. Police officers in a police helicopter that happened to be over the area at the time said it looked like a bombing run. Two miles (3 km) of the main sewer line were completely destroyed in the blast. Water lines were severed, leaving area residents without water for weeks. Luckily, the streets were nearly deserted since it was early in the morning, so no fatalities were reported.
Aftermath and legacy
In 1985, the city of Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky passed a hazardous materials ordinance in response to the disaster. This ordinance gave the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District the authority to regulate the handling of hazardous materials.
The incident has been cited by such entities as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the U.S. Government Accountability Office as an example of the need for increased security concerning the United States' wastewater systems, and by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as an example of the dangers associated with discharges of hazardous waste to sewer systems. Articles discussing the event have been published in Environmental Geology and Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society.
- Bruggers, James (July 13, 2003). "Blasts Ripped Louisville streets, Spurred Hazardous Material Law". The Courier-Journal.[dead link]
- "Around The Nation: Company Pays Millions In 1981 Sewer Explosion". The New York Times. Associated Press. December 9, 1984.
- Vesilind, P. Aarne; Thomas D. DiStefano (2005). Controlling Environmental Pollution: An Introduction to the Technologies, History, and Ethics. DEStech Publications, Inc. p. 168. ISBN 1-932078-39-8.
- American Society of Civil Engineers (2006). "Guidelines for the Physical Security of Water Utilities". American Society of Civil Engineers: 1–6. Archived from the original on July 14, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-18.
- United States Government Accountability Office (January 2005). "GAO-05-165, Wastewater Facilities: Experts' Views on How Federal Funds Should Be Spent to Improve Security". Retrieved 2007-10-18.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (February 1999). "Introduction to the National Pretreatment Program". Diane Publishing Company: 3. ISBN 978-1-4289-0271-8. Retrieved 2007-10-18.
- Bennett, Gary F. (May 1989). "Impact of toxic chemicals on local wastewater treatment plant and the environment". Environmental Geology (Springer Berlin / Heidelberg) 13 (3): 201–212. doi:10.1007/BF01665370. Retrieved 2007-10-18.
- Kingsbaker, C. L. (February 1983). "Recent safety experiences". Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society (Springer Berlin / Heidelberg) 60 (2): 245–257. doi:10.1007/BF02543492. Retrieved 2007-10-18.
- Metropolitan Sewer District of Louisville
- LOUISVILLE'S CLEANUP BEGINS IN WAKE OF SEWER EXPLOSION New York Times article