Sustained Outrage

It’s been 16 months since a phosgene leak at the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle, W.Va., claimed the life of longtime plant worker Danny Fish back in January 2010.

So where is the U.S. Chemical Safety Board report explaining to the public what went wrong at the Belle plant that day?

I keep wondering that, but I don’t get many answers from our friends at the Chemical Safety Board.

Months ago, I was repeatedly told that the board was planning a public meeting in early April to release its report here in the Kanawha Valley, so residents, workers and company officials would have a chance to discuss it with the board staff and board members.

Well, early April came and went. And now it’s almost June.

In the meantime, the board had deployed to other incidents in other places — a fatal fire at a calcium carbide plant in Louisville, Ky., a fatal fire at Hoeganaes Corporation in Gallatin, Tennessee, and an explosion at a fireworks storage facility in Hawaii. There’s no question that the CSB’s list of ongoing investigations is long and keeps growing.

So when will we — the public — get to see a report on DuPont’s fatal phosgene leak (not to mention the other string of dangerous accidents at the Belle facility)?

Well, that’s not clear. But we do know that DuPont has seen the report. So have the government agencies — such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — to whom the CSB makes recommendations in its report. That’s right — the report is done. It’s been done for a while, according to documents posted on the CSB website.

The holdup now is an internal dispute among board members about exactly how they will let the rest of us in on what their staff found when they investigated the Belle plant.

It seems that about a month ago, Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso (above, left) suggested that the CSB get the report out right away, through something called a “notation vote” allowed under the agency’s internal rules.

In an April 27 memo to other board members, Moure-Eraso proposed this route, saying it would be more efficient, given the agency’s growing work load and limited staff:

Due to current staff workloads and the number of open cases, I believe it is preferable to consider this investigation report by a notation vote. Provided that the board approves the report, I would still plan to proceed with a community-based release of the report (and video) in Charleston, West Virginia, where there is significant public interest in this case. Such a release would foster open communication with the affected community, but would require less staff preparation time and be less costly than a full-scale public meeting.

But of the three board members who took part in a vote on this proposal, only Moure-Eraso supported it. Board members John Bresland and William Wright opposed it.

Bresland explained in a memo:

My reason for this vote is that I believe that there are issued in the report that should be presented at a public meeting so that the company management, employees and community are fully knowledgeable on the causes of the three incidents that occurred in January, 2010. An approved notation vote will not necessarily permit a public airing of the issues in the report.

And Wright said:

This is an important case based not only on the fact that it involved a fatality but also involved a company that was thought to be one of the best with respect to safety within the industry. The number and types of incidents contained in this report demand that we hold a public meeting to release these facts … If we were to use Chairman Eraso’s logic here (staff workload and too many open cases) to require us to make a notation item vote, we will likely never hold anymore public meetings again because the number of open unfinished cases continues to grow (in excess of 20 now) and the staff numbers continue to decline as people are choosing to leave the agency. Accordingly, I calendar this item and request a public hearing of the facts.

There’s been no announcement from the CSB about when it might hold such a public hearing …

UPDATE, 8 a.m. May 26, 2011:

After this blog post was published, officials from the Chemical Safety Board called and wanted to talk about the status of their report on the DuPont Belle plant. Among other things, board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and his public affairs staff wanted me to know that — despite what the board’s own documents indicated — OSHA has not been given a copy of the board’s report. Board investigators did meet with OSHA to discuss possible recommendations that the board would make to OSHA as a result of its review at the Belle facility. DuPont wasn’t given a copy of the report, but was allowed to come to the CSB offices to review the document (so OSHA and DuPont still know more about the board’s findings than the folks who live in the Kanawha Valley).

Finally, board officials said they’ve set another board vote — due to be completed by June 6 — on a proposal to have the board come to the Charleston area and release its report during a public meeting sometime in June. Of course, the public wouldn’t know that the board is considering this — and we can’t see the actual motion under consideration — because the board doesn’t make such documents public until after board members vote on them.

Stay tuned …