NARISSA FRASER & LAUREL V WILLIAMS
THE Energy Ministry has launched an investigation into the cause of an explosion at NiQuan Energy Ltd’s Pointe-a-Pierre plant on Wednesday morning, which shook South Trinidad.
Around 6.35 am, the recently commissioned gas-to-liquids plant’s hydrocracker system failed during an attempted startup.
This was confirmed to Newsday by the company’s vice president of corporate affairs, Malcolm Wells.
He described the incident as “a serious equipment failure.
“This resulted in the blowout of the DA-301 system, part of the product cleaning process, and caused a fire."
Residents of Vistabella, La Romaine, Gasparillo, Tarouba, Siparia and even La Brea posted on social media that they heard the explosion, which scared many. Some said they thought there had been an earthquake, as their houses “rocked.”
Several social media users also posted videos showing smoke coming from the plant, which was opened on March 8.
Roads leading to the plant were blocked off and officials from the Mon Repos Fire Station visited and contained the blaze.
There were no casualties or injuries.
Wells told Newsday the plant was “immediately shut down” and its natural-gas supply was isolated.
He said, “The safety procedures worked as planned and the company’s operator training proved effective. At no point was there any threat to people or property in any of the areas surrounding the plant.
“The safety team is working closely with the project team and with relevant external stakeholders to identify exactly what went wrong and to ensure that there is a robust plan in place that addresses the causes and guards against any further incidents.”
He said the incident is “of huge regret” to the company, as its zero-incident record has now been lost. But he was thankful no one was injured.
“We cannot turn back the clock, but we can commit to doing everything necessary to ensure that we learn from this incident and that there is no repeat of this failure.”
The Energy Ministry said it has been in constant contact with NiQuan officials and the public will be updated as more information becomes available.
It also said it was setting up a technical team to investigate the cause of the incident.
Newsday tried to contact officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Authority and Agency (OSHA) but all calls went unanswered.
A media statement from the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) said it had received a report of the explosion from Paria Trading Ltd. It said its Emergency Response and Investigating Unit is involved in co-ordinating with the incident commander and other relevant agencies to receive the outcome of the preliminary findings.
Afterward, the EMA will assess the environmental impact and do further investigations at the site.
Pointe-a-Pierre MP David Lee said the explosion was a “harrowing indication of the massive failure” stemming from the government’s “questionable deal with a company with no track record in this industry.”
In a release, he said it is becoming obvious that this deal is shaping up to be an “explosive failure” that will have severe repercussions on the energy sector and taxpayers.
He said it was not “out of the blue,” as there had been ongoing reports of issues at the plant.
He also questioned the timing of the plant's opening, saying it happened two weeks after the Opposition’s motion of no confidence in the Energy Minister (Franklin Khan).
In addition, a statement from Couva South MP, Rudranath Indarsingh, on behalf of the UNC, called on the ministers of Energy and Labour to launch an immediate investigation through OSHA.
He asked, “Did the regulatory and oversight authorities and agencies turn a blind eye to the occupational health and safety risks which became obvious only a few days ago when erratic flares emanated from the said facility because persons behind this plant are highly connected politically to persons in the current government?”
He said ministers must ensure a full suspension of all activities to "save lives, protect limb and taxpayers investments."