West Carrollton, Ohio – A $50 million blast that destroyed Veolia ES Technical Solutions' hazardous waste reclamation and treatment plant three years ago sent shockwaves throughout the company's worldwide locations.
When Veolia's West Carrollton, Ohio, plant exploded shortly after midnight on May 4, 2009, plant General Manager Darek Teeters' first thought was for the safety of his employees, including one who was missing after the explosion, he said.
Two workers were injured, one slightly and one more seriously, but both eventually returned to work.
"Not only did I watch my facility being destroyed, my employee was still missing. What happened? What are we going to do? How can we fix this? Where do we start?" Teeters remembers thinking that night.
Within a couple of days, Veolia decided to rebuild the site and promised all of its workers they would not lose their jobs due to the explosion. Some were relocated to other company sites around the country.
"We had an idea of what we needed to do with planning a cleanup within a couple of days. Within a month, we had an idea of how best to fix it," the general manager said last week at the site.
An investigation eventually determined flammable vapors from the processing site found their way into the facility's laboratory building and were probably ignited by a boiler flame, the company said.
The explosion in West Carrollton, company officials said, helped Veolia create a blueprint on how to improve operations in its hazardous waste business – known as Veolia ES Technical Solutions – and in the company's solid waste and industrial services divisions.
The reopening was so important to Veolia Environmental Services that CEO Jerome LeConte flew in from Paris to be there.
"I think it has changed a lot the way we act together and the way we've taken safety and preventative measures, because we have the occasion to start from ground zero, which is somehow easier than when you have an existing facility. And we've redefined a number of processes," LeConte said.
Richard Burke, CEO of Veolia Environmental Services' North American operations, put it this way: "We didn't waste a crisis. We used crisis to make a stronger company committed to health and safety."
LeConte said it was fortunate that the blast did not result in any fatalities.
"The rest is a good thing because we did progress [as a company] when you look at it three years later," he said.
As CEO of Veolia ES Technical Solutions, Jim Bell was on the ground in West Carrollton the day after the explosion.
Veolia, he said, took the opportunity to examine what went wrong in Ohio and apply changes at other sites around the world.
That included moving laboratories farther away from processing operations, a change in past practices when convenience was given the most consideration. Veolia also installed enhanced fire protection processes, for example, he said.
Without being specific, a company official said those changes were a multimillion dollar investment worldwide.
"I think it was important to rebuild both for our customers and for our employees here in West Carrollton," Burke said. "Logistically, for our customer base, Ohio is centrally located for many of our industrial clients in the Midwest.
"The quality of the people here, the quality of the training we've put in and what we've done and the longevity of the employees at this facility made it almost a no-brainer to rebuild here," he said. "We used the crisis to make a stronger company.
"Every company has crisis, the big mistake is not to use them," LeConte said.