An investigation into a December balloon explosion at the World View Enterprises launch pad near the Tucson airport is underway, with a report with recommendations expected in the “near future,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
His comments came amid a discussion spurred by questions and concerns from Supervisor Ally Miller, who has been a critic of the county’s deal with World View. Among other things, Miller was hoping to get information on the extent of the damage, injuries and possible violations of state and federal laws.
Huckelberry, who recently met with company representatives, described damage to the building as “superficial.” The facility’s insurer has cut a check for $200,000 in repairs.
“The building will be in its original condition at no cost to Pima County,” he said.
“It is a miracle that no one was seriously injured or killed by this violent explosion,” Miller wrote in a memo regarding the agenda item. “It could have been far worse.”
A video published by the Arizona Daily Independent shows the balloon bursting suddenly and erupting into a ball of flame.
Former NASA engineer and space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale is leading the investigation, though the names of others assisting are not being made public. A company spokesman described the effort, which World View is paying for, as a “completely objective, independently led investigation.” The members of the investigating body were selected by company board members and executives, as well as senior advisers, according to Andrew Antonio, who added that company employees “won’t have any involvement.”
“Establishing an accident review board, you pick the people that are most appropriate to serve,” he said.
Chief Technology Officer Taber MacCallum told the Star that while the investigation is underway, “We are not using hydrogen on the site,” and are awaiting final recommendations before making any permanent changes.
In the wake of the incident, three employees complaining of ringing in their ears received medical attention, according to Huckelberry.
As to Miller’s concerns about hazardous materials at the county-owned site, Huckelberry said that accidental releases of hydrogen are regulated by the Clean Air Act, but only if the amount stored exceeds 10,000 pounds, more than county officials believe is kept at the facility.
The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigated the incident but issued no citations found no safety violations, according to Huckelberry. Huckelberry said the final investigation report is expected in the next six months.
“As far as I’m concerned, that answers the majority or all of the questions I just had,” Miller said after the back and forth with Huckelberry.
World View leases the site from Pima County for high-altitude balloon launches and operates the spaceport under contract with the county.