Welding possible cause of fire at Irving Terminal in Searsport

Posted June 07, 2011, at 4:55 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — Early indications are that maintenance welding on an empty heating fuel tank at the Irving Terminal on Mack Point was the cause of a fire that damaged the tank on Monday afternoon.

Irving officials have begun an investigation into the fire and are still assessing the cause, according to company spokesperson Carolyn VanDerveen.

The tank had previously been emptied of all fuel and had been cleaned in preparation for a routine maintenance upgrade, which included welding. Workers were welding at the top of the tank on Monday when the fire began. No one was injured in the blaze, VanDerveen said Tuesday.

“At this point we believe the ignition point was the welding,” she said. “It’s still under investigation and the root cause is still to be determined.”

The fire started on a rubber seal surrounding the internal floating roof inside the tank. VanDerveen could not confirm reports that the floating roof had collapsed in the fire.

“We’re still assessing the damage,” she said.

The tank, which has a capacity of 175,000 barrels of heating oil, is one of a dozen at the Searsport facility. There are 42 gallons in one barrel. Eight people work at the terminal.

The fire call came in at about 4 p.m. on Monday, triggering a response by about 70 firefighters from the Searsport Fire Department and several nearby towns, according to Searsport Fire Chief Jim Dittmeier.

The key difficulty in fighting the fire, Dittmeier said, was that it was in an enclosed place. He said  he couldn’t — and, for safety reasons, wouldn’t — send firefighters inside the tank, so they had to fight it from outside.

Dittmeier said he knew from the outset that the tank was empty. VanDerveen indicated that the fire posed no danger to any of the other tanks at the terminal.

Fire crews poured an estimated 80,000 gallons of water onto the fire in order to put it out. The fire was out by about 9 p.m., the chief said.

Firefigthers from the towns of Prospect, Bucksport, Belfast, Morrill, Northport and Stockton Springs responded to assist the Searsport crews. Waldo emergency crews also responded.

Since the tank was empty, the fire did not disrupt deliveries or operations at the terminal, VanDerveen said, and work continued normally both on Monday and on Tuesday. Although she was uncertain how long the maintenance work on the tank was scheduled to last or how long additional repairs might take, VanDerveen said the fire would not affect heating fuel supplies or prices in the fall.

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