Sustained Outrage

Nobody really counts chemical plant accidents

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.