10 years later, Kleen Energy families still seek closure

The Middletown Press
Liz Teitz
February 07, 2020

Ten years after an explosion at the nearly-finished Kleen Energy Systems power plant in Middletown killed six employees and injured dozens more, families of victims and survivors are still searching for closure and calling for change.

Six men died on Feb. 7, 2010: Ronald Crabb, of Colchester, Raymond Dobratz, of Old Saybrook, Peter Chepulis, of Thomaston, Roy Rushton, of Hamilton, Ontario Kenneth Haskell, of New Durham, N.H., Chris Walters, of Florissant, Mo., and 50 more were injured in the explosion.

Workers from O&G Industries were using natural gas to clear debris from pipes, in a procedure known as a “gas blow.” Instead of dispersing, the natural gas gathered in a courtyard and ignited, causing the explosion that was felt miles away.

Since then, Connecticut has banned using flammable gas for that purpose. A lawsuit from victims’ family members is still on appeal, and some friends and family members question whether construction site safety has improved.

“We’re all looking for closure,” said Raymond Dobratz’s son, Erik. But when he or his mother, Paula Dobratz, receive a notification about her pending lawsuit, or see a story about another construction accident, closure is hard to find, he said. “Every time we try to move on, it seems like something else gets in the way. It’s just very difficult to process.”

Dozens of victims’ families and survivors filed suits after the explosion. While many of the cases have been resolved, attorney Joel Faxon said a case against Kleen Energy and Power Plant Management Sytems, alleging that they failed to heed warnings from the state against using natural gas, is still on appeal. The cases have all been consolidated, he said.

“It was found that Kleen Energy was not responsible,” said attorney Lee Hoffman, who has been representing the company since before the explosion. “The judge found that Kleen Energy did not have sufficient control in order to be responsible.”

In a memorandum of decision in July, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher found that “the evidence shows their (Kleen and Power Plant Management Services) role in the gas blow was no more than a whisper in contrast to the general contractor’s full-throated control granted to it under the specific language of its agreement with Kleen.” O&G was “in control of building” the plant and responsible for safety on the site, he said.

“We obviously disagree with that strongly,” said Faxon, who is now appealing the dismissal to the Supreme Court. “It’s a significant burden on the families to have to continuously relive this horrific experience.”

“I’m very grateful for the support of family, friends and union trade members across our great state and beyond,” Paula Dobratz said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to the day that our legal system finally remedies this tragic event. I hope no family ever has to go through this trying process.”

“The worst part is my kids are very active in athletics, and he was a big proponent of that,” said Erik Dobratz, a sports anchor at WTNH. “That’s hard. He would be thrilled to be standing at a baseball field watching my son or my daughter. That’s the type of stuff we all have trouble with.”

His father talked about retiring, he said, and planned to do so after finishing the Kleen Energy project. But he loved the “fraternity of the construction trades,” and often told stories about the camaraderie with his co-workers, Erik Dobratz said.

“That’s why he had such trouble retiring. Like an athlete when you retire from a sport, you miss the lunchtime, the coffee breaks, the after work talking,” he said. Last year was the first time that he attended the annual memorial in Middletown, where he got to hear from some of his father’s friends. “It was good to hear them reminisce,” he said.

Paul Venti comes from Florida every February to honor the men who died; he’ll be the master of ceremonies Sunday at the tenth anniversary memorial, held outside the plant on River Road.

“They were my good friends, and my brothers that I worked with on the job,” said Venti, who is a retired member of UA Local 777 Plumbers and Pipefitters. Ronnie Crabb “was my best friend, we hunted, we fished, we did everything together. I saw the dog waiting for him on the porch, saw his 6-year-old son, knowing he would never come home.”

“I don’t think enough’s been done,” Venti said. “At the beginning of a job, they (contractors) preach safety,” he said. But as deadlines approach, “they turn a blind eye and deaf ear to safety when they fall behind schedule.”

Working at a news station, Erik Dobratz hears about construction accidents happening often, he said. And while he knows that accidents happen, “it just seems like a lot of lip service to safety.”

In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media this fall, O&G Industries, Inc. President David Oneglia said the explosion prompted serious changes at the company.

“That was by far the worst day of my life,” he said. “The project manager on the job, he wasn’t conscious that it was Super Bowl Sunday. They wanted to get home, and that’s how it happened. They moved too quickly and they didn’t give the gas enough time to dissipate.”

“It was 17 months of absolute hell. Most people can talk about safety, you know, ethereally. We know how important it is. We’ve been there,” he said. “The safety department went from one person to eight or nine within six months, a year of that. We took it very seriously. Because we thought we did everything the best we could do it when we were at the plant. We don’t ever want to have that again.”

Kyle Zimmer, Health and Safety Director of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 478, said that while the natural gas blow ban in Connecticut is the only significant regulatory change to come out of the explosion, “what we are trying to do is change a safety culture, where workers are not afraid to speak up when safety issues arise.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, who will speak at Sunday’s memorial and who was friends with Crabb, has introduced legislation that he hopes will update and strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The Protecting American Workers Act, which he reintroduced last year on the ninth anniversary of the explosion, includes mandating that employers abate violations and correct hazardous conditions while they contest citations, improving “whistleblower protections for workers who call attention to unsafe working conditions,” establishing rights for families of workers killed on the job, and authorizing “felony penalties against employers who knowingly commit OSHA violations that result in death or serious bodily injury.”

It has 40 co-sponsors, he said, but is going to need “a big boost to get on the radar screen of leadership.”

“I’ve seen his family intermittently in the district since Ronnie passed, and I meet with the Plumbers and Pipefitters union all the time. And every time we get together, we always talk about Kleen Energy,” Courtney said. “This is something that really burns, it’s a wound for people.”

“The part about it that’s really the hardest is when you read the investigation and look at the legal structure around workplace safety, this could have been prevented,” Courtney said.