Sustained Outrage

Chemical safety: Board backing off tough standards?


Here in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, the federal Chemical Safety Board is probably pretty popular right about now … Local officials and activists praise the board for its detailed report on the August 2008 explosion and fire at Bayer CropScience, and the board gets some credit for Bayer’s decision to dramatically reduce its stockpile of the deadline chemical methyl isocyanate.

Of course, remember that the board had initially buckled to pressure from Bayer and postponed a public hearing in the valley.  And the push from local political leaders on the board to do a tough review of Bayer certainly helped the agency along the path it took.

But now, the CSB is taking some serious heat for not doing what Congress mandated it to do: Proposing tough new rules and regulations to make chemical plants safer, and keeping the heat on regulatory agencies like OSHA and EPA to do a better job.

Earlier today, several international unions representing hundreds of thousands of chemical industry workers blasted the CSB for “abrogating its mandate” to recommend strong EPA and OSHA standards to prevent runaway reactions in chemical factories.

Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator of the Change to Win labor group, said:

Sadly, the board has failed to fulfill its mandate to support the highest level of protection for American communities — including their workers — threatened by chemical industry hazards.

If the board persists in flouting its mandate, it will require new leadership to assure that its mission is accomplished.

What’s causing all this fuss? It’s the board’s new report, issued today and finalized at a meeting tonight, on a Dec. 19, 2007, explosion and fire at T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Fla. The accident killed four T2 employees and injured four others. Twenty-eight people working at nearby businesses were injured when building walls and windows blew in. The blast sent debris up to a mile away and damaged buildings within a quarter-mile of the facility.


In its report, the CSB blamed the incident on a runaway reaction that likely resulted from an inadequate reactor cooling system. T2 officials, the board said, “did not recognize all of the potential hazards of the process for making a gasoline additive.” Board members called for improving the education of chemical engineering students on reactive chemical hazards.

bio_bresland_112wx156h.jpgJohn Bresland, chairman of the board, said:

It’s important that chemical engineers recognize and are aware of the proper management of reactive hazards.

And CSB Investigation Supervisor Robert Hall added:

Our recommendations aim to address the gap in the chemical engineering curriculum. If future chemical engineers are given the proper educational tools, they will be able to more fully comprehend the hazards that exist during a chemical manufacturing process.

OK … but what labor groups are upset about isn’t so much what the board recommended, but what the board didn’t recommend. Conspicuously absent from the CSB report was a repeat of the board’s recommendation that OSHA and EPA rewrite their rules to more closely regulate the handling of highly reactive chemicals.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, said:

The T2 explosion is yet more evidence of the need for stricter regulation and oversight of the chemical industry.

For eight years the Bush administration ignored calls for stronger chemical process safety rules, and now American workers are paying for those flawed decisions with their lives.

You see,  the CSB produced a major report way back in October 2002 that examined the serious danagers of working with highly reactive chemicals. Board investigators spent more than two years examining 167 serious chemical accidents over 20 years that involved uncontrolled reactions and resulted in 108 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

The report concluded that reactive chemical accidents — where one or more chemicals suddenly react or decompose, producing severe heating and rising pressures — pose “a significant problem” and that pertinent federal safety regulations contained “significant gaps” in their applicability and in their specific provisions. For example, CSB investigators found that more than half of the 167 surveyed incidents involved chemicals not covered by OSHA process safety management or EPA risk management rules.

The board recommended that OSHA and EPA both rewrite their rules to specifically cover these kinds of reactive chemical accidents.

Unions had been trying since  1995 to get OSHA and EPA to take action on reactive chemicals. They petitioned OSHA for an emergency temporary standard on reactive chemicals after two union members and three supervisors were killed in an April 1995 fire and explosion at Napp Technologies in Lodi, N.J. OSHA responded by adding this issue to its regulatory agenda — in effect, promising action.  But Bush administration officials dropped the idea, and subsequent investigations by the Center for Public Integrity and Newsday tied the inaction to campaign contributions and former industry leaders appointed by Bush to run regulatory agencies.

Since the CSB’s 2002 recommendation, there have been nearly 250 other reactive chemical incidents, killing a total of three people, injuring 220 and forcing the evacuation of more than 24,000.

In 2003, the CSB specifically criticized OSHA for failing to implement the board’s 2002 recommendation, terming OSHA’s response “unacceptable.”

Labor groups were hoping to see something in the T2 report that renewed the call for OSHA and EPA action, especially given the new Obama administration, which has promised to do more to protect workers. All they got was an acknowledgment that the 2002 recommendation was still “open.”

This CSB animated video gives you an idea how dangerous these reactions can be: