Sustained Outrage


On the afternoon of June 9, 2009, 3 workers were killed and dozens of others were injured when an explosion occurred at the ConAgra Foods facility in Garner, North Carolina.

Not a good week for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — or for the workers and chemical plant neighbors that agency is charged with protecting.

We reported last night on several labor organizations blasting the CSB for not again taking a strong stand in favor of EPA and OSHA writing tougher new regulations to govern the deadly threat posed by reactive chemical explosions.

And now, there’s a blistering report from The Associated Press, in which reporter Mike Baker reveals that the CSB rejected a strong recommendation from its own expert staff investigators that the board immediately distribute a safety bulletin and recommendations urging more ccontrols on how workers handle the purging of gas lines.

CSB staff called for the action as a result of their investigation of the June explosion that killed three workers and injured dozens of others at a ConAgra Foods facility in Garner, North Carolina. According to the AP story, which Baker based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act:

Investigators believe contractors installing a water heater vented natural gas inside the building, leading to the blast. The contractor, Energy Systems Analysts, reported that it was common practice, and investigators said the room was ventilated by an exhaust fan.Safety board staff identified similar explosions that involved the purging of gas lines, including a May 2008 incident during the construction of a San Diego hotel that injured 14, an August 2007 explosion at a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyo., that injured two, and an explosion at a Porterville, Calif., school that burned two plumbers in November 2005. They also noted another North Carolina incident—a 1997 explosion at a fitness center in Cary that injured six.

Baker explained:

Current safety codes, developed by a committee convened by the National Fire Protection Association and the American Gas Association, says gas purges “shall not be discharged into confined spaces or areas where there are sources of ignition unless precautions are taken.”

Investigators determined that the codes needed more specifics, according to the report from August. They recommended new guidelines require that, wherever practical, gases be purged to a safe location outdoors. If that’s not possible, they suggested evacuating nonessential personnel, establishing adequate ventilation and controlling ignition sources. Staff also said workers should use gas detectors to monitor conditions.

bio_wright_112wx156h.jpgbio_visscher.jpgBut two board members — William Wright and Gary Visscher — rejected their own staff’s recommendation,  saying that both saw room to improve the agency’s guidance but that the urgent recommendations were too strong. They wrote that experts on the committees that write codes would be better suited to establish the guidance. “These organizations and committees have a lot more experience and expertise, both with gas installations and with the codes themselves, than do we,” Visscher wrote, according to the documents Baker obtained under FOIA.

The board’s action, as Baker also reported, left it to the North Carolina Building Code Council to write new guidelines for venting pipes outside or evacuating workers in the area.

bio_bresland_112wx156h.jpgJohn Bresland, the CSB chairman (who voted to endorse the staff recommendations),  said in a statement that the board is considering a revised safety bulletin this week and continues to review and revise the language of possible safety recommendations:

The CSB is committed to measures to ensure that fuel gas purging operations are conducted in the safest possible manner.

But the United Food and Commercial Workers,  which represents several hundred workers at the ConAgra site, harshly criticized the CSB’s actions to date. Union spokesman Corey Owens told the AP:

It’s outrageous that anybody would vote against protecting the safety of workers, especially when the recommendations were as simple as, ‘You shouldn’t have people in the room when there’s natural gas being pumped into it.’ These commissioners that voted against it need to seriously reconsider their commitment to mission of the chemical safety board.

And over at The Pump Handle blog, Celeste Monforton offered this reaction to the CSB’s inaction:

Indeed, it’s time for the Obama Administration to fill the long-vacant seat on the Board and have a new Board member on deck to immediately fill the Commission Gary Visscher’s spot when his term expires in November.

The Pump Handle has offered readers two posts about exceptional candidates for the CSB Board: Anthony Robbins, MD, MPH and Mark Griffon.    Both know first-hand that waiting for “code-writers” from voluntary standards organizations may have been the standard answer during the hands-off G.W. Bush years, but it’s not the way to proactively advance workers’ and communities’ health and safety.