AB Specialty Silicones has agreed to stop producing certain products and pay a fine following a lawsuit by the attorney general’s office after an explosion at their Waukegan plant killed four employees in 2019.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released a video in April giving a detailed recreation of the May 3, 2019, blast at an AB Specialty Silicones plant near Northwestern Avenue and Sunset Avenue in Waukegan.
AB Specialty Silicones manufactures silicone products used in a wide variety of applications, including personal care and roof coatings. The products are distributed worldwide.
The product EM-652, which is used as a waterproofing agent, was being made using a batch process the night of the explosion, the federal agency said.
An employee mixed two incompatible chemicals after misidentifying a drum of chemicals.
The mixture reacted and produced highly flammable hydrogen gas that ignited.
The ignition caused a “massive explosion” that killed employees Jeff Cummings, 57, of Kenosha, Wisconsin; Byron H. Biehn, 53, of Brighton Township, Wisconsin; Daniel Nicklas, 24, of Beach Park; and Allen E. Stevens Jr., 29, of Salem, Wisconsin.
The Illinois Attorney General’s office and Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office had filed a lawsuit in late May 2019 against the company.
The lawsuit alleged that the fire and explosion at the company’s Waukegan manufacturing facility resulted in an unknown amount of chemicals being released into the air, causing air pollution and threatening land and water near the facility.
The suit also alleged that contaminants released by the explosion and water used to extinguish the fire allowed chemicals to seep into storm sewers, contaminating a wetland and Osprey Lake, located approximately one mile away from the plant.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address risks to public health and the environment.
An agreed preliminary injunction entered in October 2019 required AB Specialty Silicones to investigate and evaluate the environmental impact of contaminants released in the explosion and fire.
The injunction also required the company to clean up any contamination with oversight by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA).
On Tuesday, the Illinois Attorney General’s office announced a consent order was approved and entered in Lake County Circuit Court.
The consent order resolves the lawsuit by requiring AB Specialty Silicones to pay all IEPA oversight costs and a civil penalty of $40,000.
The consent order prohibits the company’s Waukegan facility from producing certain hydrogen-releasing silicone emulsion products, including the product that was manufactured when the plant exploded.
The order also requires the company to continue following the previously entered preliminary injunction.
“In many ways, the Waukegan community was forever changed by this explosion, which resulted in contamination of the surrounding environment but even more tragically, the loss of lives,” Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said.
“The consent order ensures AB Specialty Silicones is held responsible for the tragedy, and I hope it brings some healing to the community,” Raoul said.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the company in October 2019 for willful violations, which means “the employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement (purposeful disregard) or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.”
The company was fined $1,591,176 and OSHA placed the silicon chemical products manufacturer in the “Severe Violator Enforcement Program.”
“OSHA investigators determined AB Specialty Silicones failed to ensure that electrical equipment and installations in the production area of the plant complied with OSHA electrical standards, and were approved for hazardous locations,” the U.S. Department of Labor said in October 2019.
“The company also used forklifts powered by liquid propane to transport volatile flammable liquids, and operated these forklifts in areas where employees handled and processed volatile flammable liquids and gases, creating the potential for ignition,” the U.S. Department of Labor added.
“By ignoring safety and health requirements, this employer created an unsafe work environment with deadly consequences,” Loren Sweatt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, said.
The explosion caused more than $1 million in damage and damaged at least five other buildings in the area of the plant.
Nine people were working in the AB Speciality Silicones plant at the time of the explosion.
Of the nine employees, four were found dead in the rubble, three escaped the building but suffered injuries, and two of them escaped without injury.
Cummings, who was a supervisor at the plant, noticed a problem just before the blast and reportedly helped evacuate employees.
He went back inside the building to look for the remaining employees when the explosion occurred.
Stevens had been transported by ambulance to an area hospital and later transferred to the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood where he died.
Residents throughout Lake County reported feeling and hearing the explosion and some even felt it from more than 15 miles away.
Debris from the explosion covered Sunset Avenue near Northwestern Avenue as over 100 firefighters from throughout Lake County and Cook County were called to the scene.