Nobody really counts chemical plant accidents

August 26, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Plant Explosion Texas

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Over the weekend, we had this short report in the newspaper:

Two workers were injured and transported to a hospital after a nitric acid spill at Catalyst Refiners in Nitro on Saturday afternoon, according to emergency officials.

The workers’ conditions are unknown at this time. The incident occurred just before 3 p.m. at Catalyst Refiners on 1580 1st Ave. South in Nitro.

As company officials and emergency responders frequently do, dispatchers insisted, according to the Gazette-Mail report, that the incident “posed no public hazard.” Perhaps not, but the spill made all the more timely  an important story over the weekend from the Dallas Morning News  reporting the following:

Even the best national data on chemical accidents is wrong nine times out of 10.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many [chemical] accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, a nationally recognized expert on chemical safety who recently testified before a congressional hearing on West.

“This is just scandalous.”

Among the more interesting things noted in the story was this:

Recent criticism has focused on the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an agency launched in 1998 with a mission to investigate chemical accidents that caused or risked fatalities, serious injuries and major property damage.

According to a series of reports by the Government Accountability Office and various inspectors general, the board was supposed to have created a database to help gauge chemical safety trends. But it hasn’t yet done so.

Board officials dispute that such an effort is mandatory under statute and say that, even if it were, the board lacks the resources to carry it out.

“There’s a lot in the federal government that’s authorized in statute but Congress hasn’t put any money or focus on,” said Daniel Horowitz, the board’s managing director.

It’s worth noting, though, that the Clean Air Act language creating the CSB actually says that the board shall:

… Establish by regulation requirements binding on persons for reporting accidental releases into the ambient air subject to the Board’s investigatory jurisdiction.

In 2009, the board sought comments on the matter through this Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which prompted this collection of public comments.  The board said in its 2011 budget justification that it was “analyzing those comments and developing a proposed reporting rule,” but so far no such rule has been proposed.

2 Responses to “Nobody really counts chemical plant accidents”

  1. greenspace says:

    Chemical releases that exceed federal “Reportable Quantity” thresholds must be reported under the federal rules implementing CERCLA (“Superfund”) at 40 CFR 302.6. This includes “releases” to air, water, soil, not “accidents”. EPA has this information, and it is referenced in environmental permits. Do the federal agencies not communicate with each other?

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    greenspace,

    To comply with that CERCLA requirement, all one must do is call the Coast Guard’s National Response Center. As explained here, http://www.epa.gov/osweroe1/content/reporting/faq_notify.htm#10

    “One call to the NRC fulfills the requirement to report releases of hazardous substances under CERCLA and several other regulatory programs, including those under the Clean Water Act (CWA) section 311, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Transportation Act. If direct reporting to the NRC is not practicable, reports may be made to the EPA predesignated On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) for the geographic area where the release occurred. All such reports must be relayed promptly to the NRC. If it is not possible to notify the NRC or the OSC immediately, reports may be made immediately to the nearest Coast Guard unit, provided that the person in charge notifies the NRC as soon as possible.”

    If you read the Dallas paper’s story, they explain the problems with the NRC system —

    Only one agency collects nationally comprehensive information specifically on chemical accidents. The U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center receives reports of chemical spills and other accidents from companies, emergency responders and the general public.

    But the NRC data is no more than a call log, like a 911 hotline for environmental emergencies, and first reports often turn out to be wrong. Following up those initial reports to update the data and record what actually happened is not part of the center’s mission, spokesman Andrew Kennedy said.

    Such bad data can lead to bad conclusions. The New York Times, for example, cited the response center’s data in a June 1 editorial about the chemical accident dangers revealed by the West explosion. The Times’ editorial said that 1,270 people had died as a result of chemical spills and accidents around the country in 2012. But that figure included 907 deaths that didn’t involve chemicals and 137 that never happened. They were recorded as a part of training exercises, The News found.

    Even when chemical accidents are correctly identified in the data, estimates of injuries and deaths can be way off.

    According to the data, only one person died when oxygen tanks exploded on a bus carrying hurricane evacuees near Wilmer, just south of Dallas, in 2005. In fact, 23 elderly residents of an assisted-living facility died that day when a fire in the bus’s wheel well ignited the tanks.

    Despite these problems, researchers say the National Response Center data is the best single source they have to study these chemical safety issues.

    “It’s comprehensive, but it’s useless data,” said Mannan, who heads the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M and worked 12 years in private industry as a chemical engineer. “Only 10 percent accuracy. Nowhere near reliable to where you could make statistically valid conclusions.”

    Thanks, Ken.

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