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  • Writer's pictureRon Kotrba

Cooling tower, hot-oil burner take brunt of damage in Hero BX Iowa fire

Photo: Andrew Raab, plant operator, Hero BX Iowa

A week and a-half after the fire at Hero BX’s 10 MMgy biodiesel production facility in Clinton, Iowa, Biobased Diesel Daily spoke again with Chris Peterson, Hero BX president, to get an update on the extent of the damage and repair plans. He and engineers from Erie, Pennsylvania-based Hero BX traveled to Iowa in early January shortly after the incident to assess the aftermath.

The fire occurred in the acid esterification area of the plant—a new section recently added to process feedstock with higher free fatty acid content. Two major pieces of equipment were damaged in the fire: a cooling tower and hot-oil burner.

A preliminary assessment indicates property damage from the fire is in the million-dollar range, Peterson said. “It’s not going to be a cheap, quick fix,” Peterson said. “It was a damaging fire.”

One of the chemicals that can make biodiesel plant fires so dangerous is methanol and its volatile vapors, but this incident neither resulted from, nor was made worse as a result of, methanol vapors.

“Methanol was nearby in a process tank,” Peterson said. “Employees pointed out to the fire department that there was methanol close by and they [addressed it], but this fire had nothing to do with methanol.” Natural gas and hot oil, however, were the suspected fuels for the fire.

The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but Peterson said it does not appear human error was the reason. “It looks as if this were something likely beyond our control,” he said.

No injuries resulted from the incident. “Things can be fixed, people can’t,” Peterson said. “The best news is that no one got hurt. We’re in the green energy business, and people sometimes forget this business, these plants, are inherently dangerous. We’re dealing with hot materials, extremely dangerous chemicals and pressures. Sometimes people lose sight of this and, unfortunately, accidents do happen. It’s important to never get complacent.”

The fact that no one was injured is quite extraordinary, considering the fire happened around the time of a shift change and more people were present than normal.

“People do walk around there frequently to check equipment, and to make sure there are no leaks,” Peterson said. “That hot oil burner operates under pressures and contains 500-degree oil. It is [one of the] most dangerous pieces of equipment in the plant.” It was pure happenstance no one was present when ignition started.

The transesterification portion of the plant is undamaged. Hero BX Iowa has refined feedstock on hand that will be processed to complete existing contracts. Once that feed is processed and its contractual obligations are met, the facility will shut down temporarily for repairs.

Peterson said depending on equipment lead time, he anticipates repairs to begin soon and expects the facility to be restored to its full operating capacity in about three months.

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