Investigating the Flash Point of a Vessel Explosion

Litigation, North America

A few hours after a ship departed a refinery dock with a recently loaded product of heavy fuel oil, the sea-going vessel exploded and sank. Baker & O'Brien consultants investigated refinery operations, inventory records, and the sampling process to determine why the laboratory test for flash point may have failed to identify the product flammability. We presented our findings and testified with expert opinion at deposition.

A petroleum fuel's flash point is a key specification for its safe transportation and storage. In the laboratory, the flash point test determines the temperature at which the fuel vaporizes sufficiently to ignite in air. The U.S. Department of Transportation defines a "flammable" product, such as gasoline, as having a flash point of 100F (37.8C) or less. A "combustible" product like heavy fuel oil is defined as having a flash point of greater than 100F.

Flammable fuels generally have more restrictive handling safety precautions than combustible fuels. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard certifies three marine vessel classes for carrying flammable liquids and two classes for carrying combustible cargoes. Inspections and the specific equipment used on each vessel determine its class. Fuels are tested to confirm their quality and compliance before ship loading.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) publishes several standard methods for flash point testing of fuels; each method includes a description of the apparatus, the test procedure, and requirements for obtaining and preserving samples. When these procedures are not carefully followed, laboratory testing can provide unreliable results and lead to disaster.

In one matter, a refiner loaded a vessel with heavy fuel oil on a cold January morning. Valves normally used for the loading process had frozen, refinery operations were disrupted, and unusual steps were utilized to line tanks up to the dock. A surveyor collected and tested samples and reported the cargo's flash point. Although testing qualified the product as meeting the vessel's certification requirements, a few hours after leaving the dock, the vessel exploded violently and sank.

Baker & O'Brien consultants investigated the failure of flash point tests to reveal the flammable characteristics of the cargo. Our consultants considered various factors, including the origin of the sample, sampling procedures, the sample containers used, handling of the samples from when they were obtained until being tested in the laboratory, and third-party testing of samples obtained after the event. Baker & O'Brien used this information, along with the plant's operating logs and inventory records to determine the cause of the explosion. We summarized our findings in an expert report and provided deposition testimony.

Kevin P. Milburn

Senior Consultant, PRISM Services Manager

Petroleum Refining / Transportation and Storage
Standard of Care / Accident / Incident Investigation / Commercial Contracts / Litigation / Expert Witness Testimony / Operations and Maintenance / Product Quality / Water/Marine
North America