NTSB finds two gas leaks during investigation into deadly R.M. Palmer explosion

The National Transportation Safety Board has released new information from its investigation into the natural gas-fueled explosion that took place at the R.M. Palmer Company building 2 in West Reading on March 24, 2023 that killed seven people.

The NTSB’s investigation indicates that natural gas was leaking from a DuPont Aldyl A service tee that was installed in 1982. UGI exposed and retired the service line that was connected to this service tee in 2021 when they relocated the natural gas meter from the basement to the exterior of Building 2.

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After the service line was retired, the 1982 service tee remained connected to the natural gas system, pressurized at full system pressure. As part of the meter relocation project, UGI installed a new service tee (2021 service tee) and a new service line. In addition to the leak on the 1982 service tee, NTSB investigators identified a small leak on the 2021 service tee.

NTSB: DuPont Aldyl A service tee installed in 1982 longitudinal facture along the tower, July 3, 2023.​

According to the NTSB, the 1982 service tee was less than 2-feet from subsurface infrastructures that ran between Palmer Buildings 1 and 2, including a steam line, a condensate line, and several heated chocolate pipelines. NTSB investigators observed general corrosion and a crack in the steam line when it was exposed on-scene.

Further examination of the 1982 service tee by the NTSB’s Materials Laboratory revealed that the tower, which houses the tap, consisted of an outer shell and a Dupont Delrin insert. The insert fractured in the transverse direction near its base. The upper portion of the insert was not recovered.

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The outer shell had a longitudinal fracture that started near the top of the tower and extended toward the tower base. Fractographic examination indicated that the fracture in the tower started on its inner diameter surface.

NTSB: Remaining insert at the base of the 1982 DuPont Aldyl A service tee tower, July 3, 2023.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) added Aldyl A service tees with Delrin inserts to their list of pipe materials with “poor performance histories relative to brittle-like cracking” on September 6, 2007.

Additionally, industry guidance in ANSI/GPTC Z380.1, The Guide for Gas Transmission, Distribution, and Gathering Pipeline Systems discusses previous experience with DuPont polyethylene service tees with Delrin polyacetal inserts that were installed in the late 1960s to early 1980s. 

R.M. Palmer issued the following statement regarding the NTSB update:

“We are aware of the update that the NTSB posted today regarding a natural gas leak from a retired DuPont natural gas service tee installed by UGI under the street outside of Palmer’s factory building. Because we remain a party to the NTSB’s investigation, we are prohibited from commenting further on that update. We continue to be appreciative of all the work that the NTSB has done and is continuing to do. We remain focused on rebuilding Palmer and doing all we can to help the entire West Reading community recover.”

Along with the update from the NTSB, West Reading officials say residents can expect to potentially see large equipment needed to remove manufacturing equipment from Building #1.

At this time, there are no updates regarding the clean-up, as the Borough is still awaiting plans from the property owners as they work with their insurance providers to move forward.

The Small Business Association will be available until Friday at 6pm at the West Reading Fire Department for all small businesses affected by the incident. Customer Service Representatives will be available at the BRC to answer questions about the disaster loan program and help business owners complete their applications. For more information, visit the SBA’s website.

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