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Deadly explosion likely to bring more scrutiny of gasline purging technique

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Connecticut explosion that killed five people won't slow the development of natural gas power plants. But it will likely lead to more scrutiny of a technique used to clear air from gas lines.

The accident is the latest in a series of deadly blasts over the last decade connected to natural gas, a fuel increasingly being counted on to power the nation's energy future.

The blast in Middletown, Conn., on Sunday, which also injured at least a dozen people, happened as workers were purging gas lines of air, but the exact cause remained under investigation.

Purging is the same process linked to an explosion in North Carolina last year that killed four workers at a Slim Jim beef jerky factory.

The problem of purging gas has become serious enough that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board voted 2-1 last week to approve new safety recommendations for how it should be done. The federal agency has urged workers to vent gases outdoors and use detectors to monitor gas levels while purging gas lines. If that's not possible, all nonessential workers should leave the area.

It is not clear what the conditions were in Connecticut when the explosion occurred. A team sent by the Safety Board to the site Monday was turned away by local police, said Daniel Horowitz, the agency's spokesman. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also expected to send a team to the site Monday to investigate.

The explosion at the plant comes as power generators are increasingly relying on natural gas to produce electricity, and the use of gas is growing to power factories and heat homes.

Gas is currently used to make about a fifth of the nation's electricity. That's expected to grow to 26 percent by 2018 as older, coal-fired plants are retired. There are 35 gas-fired power plants in the U.S. either under construction or built but not yet operational.

Experts say the explosion will not deter growing reliance on natural gas, noting that with any fossil fuel there is the risk of a blast.

David Boonin of the National Regulatory Research Institute, a group that advises utility regulators, said, "I'm more concerned about volatile gas prices than gas safety."

Cameron Horwitz, who tracks natural gas for SunTrust Robinson Humphrey said the accident may lead to more precautions on how it is handled.

A Safety Board team also examined the explosion on June 9 in the Raleigh, N.C., suburb of Garner that killed four and injured dozens working at the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant.

"I would anticipate that the team will be examining what happened in Middletown to see if there are any similarities," Horowitz said.

During that investigation of the Slim Jim plant, the Safety Board identified similar blasts:

An explosion in May 2008 at a San Diego hotel being built that injured 14.

An explosion in August 2007 at a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyo., that injured two.

An explosion in November 2005 at a Porterville, Calif., school that burned two plumbers.

And an explosion in 1999 at a Ford Motor Co. power plant in Dearborn, Mich., that killed six, injured 38 and caused $1 billion in property loss.

John Bresland, the board's chairman, said last week in North Carolina that the safety board hadn't been able to identify a trend in the problems because they had not gone to investigate the other explosions.

"Unfortunately, it took the tragedy here in Garner to get us here and to make the recommendations that we are making," he told reporters.