GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 17, 2009

New lawsuit filed in Danvers blast case

Danversport residents' lawyer going after firm that delivered chemicals

By Ethan Forman

DANVERS — A class-action lawsuit filed in Salem Superior Court yesterday says Ashland Inc. was negligent in delivering a volatile mix of heptane and alcohols to an ink and paint plant that blew up three years ago.

The delivery eventually fueled a blast equal to 4,700 pounds of TNT in the Danversport neighborhood on the eve of Thanksgiving 2006, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims the chemical company should have known better than to deliver these chemicals to a plant that lacked permits and licenses to store its chemicals.

The lawsuit's filing was foreshadowed Nov. 2 when attorneys for the Safe Area for Everyone group, including high-profile Beverly attorney Jan Schlichtmann, released its findings about Ashland and its relation to the Water Street facility.

"Every aspect of this was an explosion waiting to happen," Schlichtmann said. "What our investigation has shown is this was a highly foreseeable event ... How can they justify giving such highly explosive chemicals to people who are not capable of handling it safely?"

The lawsuit alleges that Ashland knew all about how the CAI/Arnel plant operated, that it stored and heated chemicals in "unlawful and unventilated tanks" and other enclosures that lacked safety controls and relied on human oversight.

Ashland spokesman Jim Vitak referred to a prior company statement on the matter: "As independent investigations have already determined, Ashland played no role in that event."

The Nov. 22, 2006, blast destroyed the 10,000-square-foot plant, and a shock wave tore through the adjacent neighborhood. The explosion caused $30 million in damage to dozens of homes, businesses, cars and boats at a nearby marina and displaced more than 70 families, some for months on end. While some people were injured, no one was killed.

Federal investigators theorized the production manager inadvertently left a steam valve open the day before the blast, which caused a volatile mixture of heptane and alcohols to boil. Vapor escaped, filled the building, found an unknown ignition source and exploded at 2:46 a.m.

Ashland should not have delivered the chemicals, given the company's stated principles that include promoting "safe and secure operations together with our business community partners," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks relief on one count each of strict liability, negligence, creating a public nuisance and breach of warranty of merchantability. It asks the court to allow the action to go forward as a class-action "monetary relief" for those who suffered damage and seeks coverage of attorneys' fees. It also requests a jury trial.

The lawsuit was filed just prior to the marking of the third anniversary of the blast, when the statute of limitations on lawsuits expires.

The lawsuit's plaintiffs include Deborah Riva, whose 1 Bates St. home, at 40 feet from the chemical plant, was destroyed in the blast and had to be rebuilt, and Robert Corrieri, a North Reading resident whose boat, in storage at Liberty Marina, about 60 feet from ground zero, also was destroyed.

The plaintiffs represent residents, business owners and others who suffered damage. They are suing Ashland, whose operations are in Tewksbury, "for compensatory and multiple damages," though no amount is specified.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673 or by e-mail at eforman@gloucestertimes.com.

Blast vigil slated

This Sunday, residents plan to gather at 2:46 p.m. in the parking lot of the former Danversport Bakery for prayer and silent reflection, as well as a walk around the neighborhood, to mark the third anniversary of the Danversport explosion.