Negligence and lax government oversight led to a fatal explosion at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, according to a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit filed this month by the family of the worker killed in the blast.
Lawrence Bass Jr., 55, was killed, and four other workers were injured, when an explosive material called tetrazene exploded on April 11, 2017.
The Lake City facility, which sits on nearly 4,000 acres in Independence, Missouri, is the military’s primary provider of small-caliber ammunition. The government-owned plant produces up to two billion rounds of ammunition per year.
Almost all of the plant’s 2,000 workers are civilian employees of the defense contractor that operates the facility. Orbital ATK managed the Lake City facility at the time of the explosion, but Northrop Grumman took over operations after purchasing Orbital ATK in 2018.
An investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was unable to pinpoint the cause of the blast.
While it’s possible static electricity ignited the tetrazene, investigators found it more likely that friction or impact caused the accidental explosion, according to ATF records obtained by KCUR.
Tetrazene at that stage of the manufacturing process has a consistency similar to cake batter or silly putty. Tetrazene that is too wet cannot be used in ammunition. But if the material is too dry it becomes unstable, and more susceptible to explosion.
Video surveillance of the explosion “did not reveal any abnormal behavior or movements by Bass” in the moments before the explosion, investigators wrote.
Bass was using a spatula to remove a recently-dried batch of tetrazene from a metal container. The method he used, called “wedging” by Bass and other workers, has long been in place at the plant.
ATF investigators noted, however, that such a method was not outlined in Orbital ATK’s standard operating procedure (SOP). KCUR previously reported that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) fined Orbital ATK more than $100,000 for inadequate SOPs and other problems uncovered in the wake of the blast.
The lawsuit, filed filed in federal court by Bass’s children, alleges the Army should have known about the discrepancy between the SOP and what workers were actually doing.
The Army “is responsible for auditing compliance with safety policies and safety procedures,” according to the lawsuit.
“Army personnel do not maintain appropriate records of their oversight,” the lawsuit claims, and “do not conduct safety reviews as required by the regulations.”
Had the Army “carried these inspections out and done so in a non-negligent manner, the use of (the wedging method)... would have been identified and terminated before any explosion took place,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit also states that Orbital ATK’s ongoing financial problems may have endangered workers at the Lake City Plant.
The company has said it expects to lose nearly $375 million on its current seven-year contract to run the facility.
Orbital ATK has also agreed to pay $108 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by shareholders who alleged the company misled investors about the profitability of its Lake City contract.
Workers at the facility suffered injuries at a rate 3.5 times higher than their industry peers during the five years before the explosion, according to records obtained by KCUR.
The Army “knew or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known that Orbital ATK… was negligent, incompetent, under extreme cost pressure, and otherwise motivated to cut costs at the expense of safety,” the Bass family's lawsuit states.
Bass’s children filed the lawsuit because they want to do “whatever they can to ensure the government takes steps to implement safety protocol at (the Lake City facility),” attorney Michelle Marvel told KCUR on behalf of the family.
“They want the responsible parties held accountable for the unnecessary explosion and death of Lawrence Bass.”