Sustained Outrage

On January 31, 2011 a fatal flash fire at Hoeganaes Corporation fatally injured a one worker and seriously burned as another. The facility produces powdered iron and is located about twenty miles outside of Nashville, Tenn. Photo from U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

There’s a new update out this week from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that shows again the dangers of combustible dust in the workplace:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) today released test results confirming preliminary conclusions that two flash fires which occurred at the Hoeganaes Corporation plant in Gallatin, Tennessee—one fatal—involved the combustion of iron powder which had accumulated throughout the facility and became airborne in combustible concentrations. A flash fire on January 31st killed one worker and seriously burned another. A similar fire occurred on March 29th and caused one injury.

According to CSB investigators:

The first incident occurred on January 31 as two maintenance mechanics on the overnight shift inspected a bucket elevator that had been reported to be malfunctioning due to a misaligned belt. The bucket elevator, located downstream of an annealing furnace, conveyed fine iron powder to storage bins. The two mechanics were standing alone on an elevated platform near the top of the bucket elevator, which had been shut down and was out of service until maintenance personnel could inspect it. When the bucket elevator was restarted the movement immediately lofted combustible iron dust into the air. The dust ignited and the flames engulfed the workers causing their injuries. A dust collector associated with the elevator was reported to have been out of service for the two days leading to the incident.

The second incident occurred less than two months later on March 29 when a plant engineer, who was replacing igniters on a furnace, was engulfed in combustible dust which ignited. In the course of the furnace work, he inadvertently dislodged iron dust which had accumulated on elevated surfaces near the furnace. He experienced serious burns and bruises as a result of this second event; a contractor witnessed the fireball but escaped without injury.

CSB Investigator-in-Charge Johnnie Banks said:

Tests conducted on samples of metal powder – collected from the plant – determined that this material is combustible.

The team observed significant quantities of metal dust on surfaces within close proximity to the incident locations. This was of particular concern as metal dust flash fires present a greater burn injury threat than flammable gas or vapor flash fires. Metal dust fires have the potential to radiate more heat and some metals burn at extremely high temperatures in comparison to other combustible materials.

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West Virginia’s prescription drug abuse problem was spotlighted in January when the Gazette published a series by reporter Alison Knezevich on the issue.  She will be speaking about it on NPR’s On Point this morning at 10 a.m.

The show doesn’t air locally in Charleston, but the audio should be available about 11 a.m.

Alison is one of three guests being interviewed for an hour on On Point. Reporters Laura Ungar from the Courier-Journal in Louisville and Janet Zink from the Tallahassee bureau for the Saint Petersburg Times and Miami Herald will also share their perspectives on the issue.

In January she reported, West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of drug deaths. Between 2001 and 2008, more than nine out of 10 of those deaths involved prescription drugs.

Alison has continued to follow the issue. In April the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy unveiled a plan, praised by West Virginia leaders, that’s designed to reduce prescription drug misuse by 15 percent over the next five years.

There’s a new study out today from The Pew Center on the States that concludes:

West Virginia spent $1.44 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2010, yet the state cannot answer critical questions about what returns this investment is generating in the areas of jobs and commerce, mobility, access and environmental stewardship.

According to a press release from Pew:

The state leads the way in measuring transportation’s impact on the key goals of safety and infrastructure preservation. But overall, it trails behind other states in having the essential tools–goals, performance measures and data–needed to help decision makers choose cost-effective transportation funding and policy options.

The study is available online here, and they have a West Virginia Fact Sheet posted here. They also have an interactive map.

According to Pew:

West Virginia fares well in measuring its transportation system’s progress in advancing safety and infrastructure preservation. For instance, the state aims to resurface 8.3 percent of its paved highways every year so that the entire system will be revamped over a 12-year cycle. But with other goals, such as jobs and commerce, the state has room for improvement. For example, West Virginia does not have performance measures and data to assess transportation’s progress toward mobility and environmental stewardship. It has only one performance measure–transit ridership–for access. The state set a goal of boosting rural transit ridership by 1.5 percent each year, a target it met for a few years before ridership fell in 2010.

Robert Zahradnik, director of research, Pew Center on the States, said:

West Virginia lawmakers should make transportation policy and spending choices based on evidence about what works and what does not. Unless states have clear goals, performance measures and data to generate that information, it is very difficult for policy makers to prioritize transportation investments effectively, target scare resources and help foster economic growth.

Huge news today on the oil and gas drilling front … and lots of coverage of it all over the place.

Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica reports:

For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.

The peer-reviewed study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.

Andrew Revkin put it this way on his DotEarth blog:

Researchers from Duke University say they have found a clear link between gas drilling in Pennsylvania and Upstate New York and high levels of flammable methane in drinking water — a situation that became a prominent talking point in the drilling debate after flaming faucets were featured in the documentary “Gasland.”

And  Dina Cappiello of The Associated Press explained:

Of the 60 wells tested for methane gas, 14 had levels of methane within or above a hazard range set by the Department of Interior for gas seeping from coal mines — all but one of them near a gas well. In nine wells, concentrations were so high that the government would recommend immediate action to reduce the methane level.

The study itself, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, put it this way:

In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction.

But as a press release from Duke University explained:

The study found no evidence of contamination from chemical-laden fracking fluids, which are injected into gas wells to help break up shale deposits, or from “produced water,” wastewater that is extracted back out of the wells after the shale has been fractured.

Still, as ProPublica explained, the scientists:

… Were alarmed by what they described as a clear correlation between drilling activity and the seepage of gas contaminants underground, a danger in itself and evidence that pathways do exist for contaminants to migrate deep within the earth.

“We certainly didn’t expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise,” said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at Duke and one of the report’s authors.

Secret meetings, May 6, 2011

Two meetings in today’s edition of The State Register did not comply with the public notice requirements of  West Virginia’s open meetings act.

The agencies involved? The state Investment Management Board and Workforce West Virginia.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

The Morgantown Dominion Post broke the story yesterday (subscription required) about the state Department of Environmental Protection approving two permits for Marcellus gas wells to be drilled just upstream from the area’s drinking water intakes along the Monongahela River.

As they reported:

Site preparation has begun, said Michael John, president of Northeaste Natural Energy, the Charleston-based company that will do the drilling …

… John said the two permits — issued March 10 and March 23 — allow the company to drill two wells on the pad — MIP No. 4H and No. 6H. If various factors pan out — including the wells’ productivity and pipeline capacity — the company may drill four more on the same pad.

The Dominion Post has a follow-up story today (subscription required), reporting:

A Monongahela River watershed group wants the Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential health ans safety risks of two Marcellus wells planned for the Morgantown Industrial Park — and preferably hold the permits until the risks can be assessed.

The letter from the WV/PA Monongahela Area Watershed Compact (which I’ve posted here) raises a number of issues:

— Any leakage, seepage, spillage, or blow-out of liquid pollutants would be a direct threat to the water intake of the Morgantown Utility Board (MUB), that serves the greater metropolitan area of nearly 100,000 people, including many residential and business areas, and the entire populace of West Virginia University ( about 40,000 people). MUB supplies to Morgantown, Westover, Granville, Laurel Point, Scotts Run, Star City, Pleasant Valley, Cheat View, and Stewartstown as well as Milan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and the Ft. Martin and Longview power plants.

— The diverse air emissions including controlled and inadvertent releases, fugitive emissions, blow-outs, and accidental incidents that represent a major threat to the people and property here in the Monongahela River valley.

— Fire and explosion hazards, as evidenced by a number of incidents in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania; this includes the flash-fire in Washington County (PA) on February 23rd that resulted in serious injuries to three workers, two of whom were WV residents; and the recent Marcellus well blow-out in Bradford County (PA) which spread toxic fluids over a wide area despite the engineering and operating best practices of the drilling company involved. This also resulted in a temporary halt to fracking by this company in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The citizen group told DEP Secretary Randy Huffman in its letter:

We believe that these permitted wells plus those that may be added, can present a significant and real threat to the health and safety of residents of this area. Your office is empowered to take substantive actions when such threats to public health and safety occur; and, we herewith request that you do so without delay.

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told the Dominion Post her agency would review the letter, but added:

We’re following the regulations that we have to follow; until we have more, we don’t have the authority behind us on a lot of things they want us to do.

One thing that these particular drilling permits are sure to cause a stir about: The lack of any requirement for DEP to issue a public notice or seek public comments — let alone hold a public hearing — before it issues permits for drilling that might impact public health and safety.

As Kathy Cosco told me in an e-mail message last night:

… There was no public hearing or comment period for these permits. Oil and Gas regulations do not call for public hearings or a comment period for well work permits. The company is required to notify the surface property owner or owners, the natural gas owner, coal owners, coal lessees and operators, and those parties have 15 days to submit comments related to the permit.

The lack of public involvement is in stark contrast to the regulations that govern many other industrial activities, and certainly quite less stringent than what the coal industry has to follow in West Virginia.

Earlier this year, the West Virginia Environmental Council made adding a requirement for public notice and comment among the top priorities for any new legislation on oil and gas drilling in the state, saying in a position paper:

The impacts of Marcellus Shale operations are felt far beyond the surface tracts being disturbed. Impacts can occur to public lands, special places, high quality streams, neighboring landowners, and local infrastructure. Therefore, EVERY permit application to drill a horizontal should be officially noticed to the public (via newspaper ads, etc.), and should include a 30-day public comment period (this is in addition to all the appropriate notice provisions to surface owners and others).

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has announced it is extending the public comment period on a small change that could — if industry has its way — someday soon result in a major weakening of the state’s water quality standards.

The comment period on the change — to allow harmonic mean flow to be used to calculate limits on cancer-causing pollution in a small section of the Ohio River — will now run through 5 p.m. on June 6.

Read more about the proposal itself here.

The comment period was scheduled to end Tuesday evening, but DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told me:

We had a comment from an individual that he did not know it was out for comment. And we wanted to make sure people had ample opportunity to comment on the changes.

More video of the fight outside Impulse

Here’s another video of the fight outside Impulse night club early in the morning of April 24.

There’s audio, but it’s hard to make out what anyone is saying. At one point a guy looks at the camera and says, “MMA, how you gettin’ whooped?”

Woody Woods from 98.7 The Beat told me about it a little while ago, when he asked me to come on his show this evening to talk about the story.

Also, in case you missed it, Danny Jones said the city could close Impulse, if things got out of hand.

Every few years, it seems, industry lobbyists in West Virginia come back with their proposal to greatly weaken the state’s water quality standards by changing the way pollution limits are calculated.

This past legislative session, they succeeded in slipping through what one industry lawyer, Dave Yaussy described — perhaps hopefully — on his West Virginia Environmental Law blog as “the Camel’s Nose Under the Tent Flap.”

The change in question mandates the use of the so-called “harmonic mean,” or average flow to calculate the level of cancer-causing chemicals that can be discharged into a two-mile section of the Ohio River near the town of Follansbee. Previously, the pollution for this part of the river would have been based — like that in the rest of our rivers and streams in West Virginia — on the seven lowest consecutive “flow days” over the last 10 years, or the 7Q10 flow. As Dave Yaussy explains:

In issuing NPDES permits the West Virginia DEP usually uses a very conservative critical design flow referred to as the 7Q10, or the lowest 7 day consecutive flow that recurs at least once every 10 years. It’s a pretty low flow, meaning that the dilution available is low, and that means NPDES permit discharge limits are lower as well, because there’s less water to mix with. Even though the flow in the river, and therefore the amount of water available for mixing, is higher 99% of the time, the low 7Q10 flow is used to set limits in order to protect water quality even during drought periods.

Industry doesn’t like the tougher standards. They’ve been trying for years to get them changed, and their efforts back in the mid-1990s — driven in large part by a huge pulp and paper mill proposed for Mason County — prompted the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation to name the change the “Cancer Creek Bill. “ (subscription required)

Industry lobbyists succeeded, at least in a little way, this year. The change from harmonic meant for a small section of the Ohio was added to the state’s water quality standards in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Last week, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced it would be holding a public hearing on this proposal … but the thing as, as West Virginia Environmental Council lobbyist Don Garvin told me, it’s not really a proposal, at least not as far as state government goes. The Legislature already approved it. WVDEP is holding a hearing because federal regulations require public hearing and comment on such changes to water quality standards. Without the hearing, the rule change would likely be thrown out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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