A Brief History
On February 13, 1981, an incredible 13 miles of sewers and streets in Louisville, Kentucky blew up, the explosion caused by the detonation of hexane gas vapors. Even more incredibly, no people were killed, although 4 were injured. The Louisville Sewer Explosion is exactly why we cannot trust industry to “do the right thing.”
Hexane gas is not your normal sewer gas that you might have heard referred to in the past, but the product of industrial waste illegally dumped by giant feed and animal food company Ralston-Purina. The Ralston-Purina plant located in Louisville processes soybeans and cottonseed, and the company “accidentally” dumped waste products into the sewer system when a machine at the plant was not working properly.
Massive damage occurred to the sewers (obviously) and the streets above, as well as to other forms of infrastructure such as water lines and power lines, as well as private property. When the company finally settled the inevitable lawsuits, they shelled out $18 million to the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District, the most harshly affected victim of the explosions. Next on deck was the $9 million paid to 17,000 private parties, then $4 million to the city. Another $2 million was paid to entities that had not sued the company.
Of course, Ralston-Purina tried for years to deny culpability for the catastrophe, but eventually (after years) fessed up and was fined $62,500 by the Federal Government, the maximum fine allowed at the time. The hexane that was released into the sewers was a solvent used to process soybeans and was normally recycled and reused. Due to a failure in the system, thousands of gallons of the toxic stuff were released into the sewers although the exact amount is disputed between investigators and the company.
Back to the lack of fatalities, the flying manhole covers, some of which flew a hundred or more feet into the air, came crashing down, including through the roof of an apartment building, penetrating 3 floors of the place. That no one was killed is amazing! Due to the hour of the explosions, about 5:16 a.m., few cars were on the affected streets and of course those that were suffered damage. Investigators theorized that a car driving down the street created a spark which set of the hexane vapors that were leaking from the sewers to the surface. Damage included the chimneys of 43 building being destroyed, and some stairwells crumbled as well. Also, incredibly, an investigator had been sent to check on reports of fumes coming from the sewers almost 4 hours before the explosions but did not think the problem was serious. Allegedly, the company had called for the inspector to check on the leaked solvent. As you would expect, discrepancies in the reports of the company and the inspector make knowing exactly what transpired difficult to ascertain.
With a large amount of hexane still in the sewer system, many blocks of the city had to be evacuated in case of subsequent explosions. Many businesses and schools had to be closed and of course traffic was disrupted. Not a happy day in Louisville!
We note here that the good people of Kentucky have seen fit to elect Rand Paul to the US Senate (2011 to present), and he has previously advocated for the elimination of government imposed safety and environmental standards on the mining industry and other industrial pursuits. While in a perfect world, (he thinks) industry would carefully safeguard the well being of their workers and the areas surrounding their operations, if for no other reason than to avoid lawsuits for catastrophes, we know in reality that the mining industry (and others) will often cheat and cheat horribly even in the face of strict government regulations and inspections. (Example, Volkswagen diesel engine testing cheating scandal and a litany of mining disaster scandals.) As bad as things are with the EPA and various other government regulatory agencies supposedly keeping track of industry, it is hard to imagine how terrible things would get with even less government oversight!
While not the capital of Kentucky, Louisville is the biggest city in the state and is a pretty nice city, the 29th largest in the United States, especially due to a city-county merger that took place in 2003, rocketing the city up the list of the most populous cities in the US, and the metro-area to around 43rd in the US, with a city population of around 700,000 (plus or minus, depending on how its counted), and a metro population of about 1.2 million.
Thank goodness there were no deaths and only 4 injuries. Industrial accidents are not always so benign. Just ask the people in Bhopal, India or Chernobyl, Ukraine!
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe we need more or less government oversight of industry? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Dwyer, Tom. Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error. Springer, 1991.
Kletz, Trevor, and Paul Amyotte. What Went Wrong?: Case Histories of Process Plant Disasters and How They Could Have Been Avoided. Butterworth-Heinemann;, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by William Alden III of the waterfront and downtown of Louisville, Kentucky, USA, on the Ohio River at mile 604, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.