Nitrogen leak in city worker's death came from Air Products-AK Steel line

MIDDLETOWN — Tests confirm the nitrogen that filled a manhole where a Middletown city worker was killed came from two gas lines running from Air Products & Chemicals to AK Steel’s Middletown Works, according to the city.

Law Director Les Landen said during investigations Wednesday afternoon, May 19, experts identified the source of the nitrogen leak as coming from the lines running between the two facilities.

These lines, each about 250 feet long and located on Air Products’ property, are being excavated by the company to find the leaks, with work expected to be completed this week, said Art George, spokesman for the company.

“Upon completion of this investigation, we will make necessary repairs to our piping,” he said.

A third line that runs between the two plants has been shut down since May 7, when 31-year-old Jabin Lakes was killed and three Middletown firefighters were injured after ingesting fumes inside a manhole outside of Air Products’ facility at 2500 Yankee Road.

Neither AK nor Air Products believes that line to be leaking.

At this point, Alan McCoy, spokesman for AK Steel, said the company has double tested the portion of the nitrogen pipes it owns and does not believe the leak to be coming from them.

As for how the nitrogen got into the sewer line, George said “the pathway of the nitrogen into the manhole has not been identified and is still under investigation.”

Meanwhile, Yankee Road, from Lafayette to Pershing avenues, remains closed to traffic.

Lakes’ mother-in-law, Amy Rogers, said the family was told by its attorney not to discuss the situation with the media. But when informed the source of the nitrogen was located, she said: “We’re glad. Hopefully, no one else will get harmed.”

A hydro-excavation process is being used to dig out the lines. This process utilizes water rather than heavy equipment so as not to damage the lines further or damage any of the other underground pipelines or electrical lines at the excavation site, according to the city. Options for repair are being evaluated, according city and Air Products officials.

George described the excavation process as “slower but it is a lot safer and it is less invasion.”

George said these leaks were previously undetected and the company is focusing on one larger leak that “may have contributed to the decreased oxygen levels” found in the manhole. He said the work would likely take the rest of the week to complete.

“Air Products is very concerned with these findings,” he said. “Nothing is more important to us than the safe operation of our facilities in our communities.”

Earlier Wednesday, Landen said before finding the source of the nitrogen ventilation of the sewer pipe had only been somewhat successful. The city is keeping experts on scene during the excavation to “ensure protocols are followed” and to conduct further testing to assure the issue has been resolved, he said.

As for whether Middletown will take any legal action as a result of the nitrogen leaks, Landen said the “city has not begun to contemplate (its) next steps.

“Right now our interest is that we have now found the source and are making sure it is in fact the only source and getting things back under control and back in order,” he said.

Tests indicated the manhole where Lakes died had an air content of 92 percent nitrogen, less than 3 percent oxygen and approximately 5 percent water vapor. Normal air is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and smaller percentages of other gases.

Ownership of the nitrogen lines is split between the two companies. While Air Products said it did find leaks in its portion, McCoy said tests by AK engineers, safety professionals and outside gas detection experts conclusively determine its pipes were not the source of the nitrogen in the sewer.

AK is still receiving nitrogen through the two lines still in service. McCoy said the third line — which the company will pressure test today, May 20, for leaks — is not essential to its steelmaking operations but does help the company complete its process more efficiently.

“If it passes the test we will return it to operation,” he said.

AK Steel will continue to monitor the situation and to cooperate with the city, Air Products and others. However, McCoy said the company will not be excavating any of its lines at this time.

Staff Writers Ryan Gauthier and Rick McCrabb contributed to this report.