Sustained Outrage

Plant Explosion

Fireman battle a fire at AL Solutions after an explosion rocked the plant Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in New Cumberland, W.Va. Three workers were killed. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

The new leadership over at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board does a lot of patting itself on the back about what it says is “a new emphasis on public transparency and engagement.” And those who continue to criticize the management of the board under now-ousted Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso love to point to how they believe Moure-Eraso was too secretive about some things the board was doing.

And in fact, the new leadership’s plan to have regular, open-to-the-public business meetings provides an opportunity for lots of transparency, with public updates on investigations, and open discussion among board members and various other stakeholders about important worker and community safety issues.

But if the public isn’t able to see the important materials that board members are basing their discussions and votes on, that’s not really transparency.

The most notable example from yesterday’s board meeting was, as reported in our Charleston Gazette-Mail story,  was the refusal to make public the 42-page report detailing the urgent recommendations from CSB investigators for DuPont’s La Porte, Texas, plant.

There was another example, though, buried in some of the documents about the board meeting — and it’s an important one for West Virginia. The CSB’s list of “notation votes” (that is, votes not discussed or taken in public meetings) includes one that indicates the board considering changing the status of the AL Solutions response to its recommendations following an investigation of the December 2010 fire and explosion that killed three workers at the company’s plant in New Cumberland, Hancock County.

Keeping up with the status of how various entities — from government agencies to private companies to trade associations — respond to CSB recommendations is important. It lets the public know if all of those entities are properly improving their safety procedures based on what CSB experts learn in their investigations.

In this case, the CSB urged AL Solution to make a number of reforms:

— For all new and existing equipment and operations at AL Solutions facilities that process combustible dusts or powders, apply the following chapters of NFPA 484-2012, Standard for Combustible Metals:

Chapter 12, Titanium

Chapter 13, Zirconium

Chapter 15, Fire Prevention, Fire Protection, and Emergency Response

Chapter 16, Combustible Metal Recycling Facilities

— Develop training materials that address combustible dust hazards and plant-specific metal dust hazards and then train all employees and contractors.  Require periodic (e.g., annual) refresher training for all employees and contractors.

— At its new Burgettstown, Pennslvania, facility, prohibit the use of sprinkler systems and water deluge systems in all buildings that process or store combustible metals.

At its new Burgettstown, Pennslvania, facility, conduct a process hazard analysis as defined in NFPA 484-2012, Section 12.2.5, and submit a copy to the local fire department or the enforcing authority for the fire code.

Currently, the CSB lists the AL Solutions response to those recommendations as  “Open – Awaiting Response or Evaluation/Approval of Response,” which the board’s website says means:

The recipient has not submitted a substantive response, or the evaluation by CSB staff of a response is pending, or the Board has not yet acted on staff recommendation of status.

The documents from yesterday’s meeting show the board is planning a non-public vote by July 28 on whether to change that designation to “Open – Acceptable Response or Alternate Response,” which means:

Response by recipient indicates a planned action that would satisfy the objective of the recommendation when implemented, including a written timetable for completion.

So why the change? Well, we do know this from previous reporting on the AL Solutions case:

Since the 2010 deaths, AL Solutions has closed the New Cumberland operation and has a new production facility in Burgettstown, Pa. OSHA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached settlements that those agencies said required reforms that would reduce the risk of combustible dust incidents at that Pennsylvania facility and another company site in Washington, Missouri.

CSB investigator Lucy Tyler said that the improved safety measures included in the EPA and OSHA deals with AL Solutions appeared to line up with the sorts of recommendations the board made to the company.

But exactly to what extent does whatever AL Solutions has done meet the recommendations from the CSB? I tried to find out, but the board wouldn’t tell me. Agency officials offered no explanation, and when I asked for any materials that AL Solutions had submitted to the board, CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said that agency wouldn’t release that information because of concerns the materials could contain confidential business information from AL Solutions.

How is the public supposed to understand what the board is voting on here? It’s easy to make a lot of noise about transparency — and the board’s promise of regular public meetings sounds great on its face — but the board’s refusal to explain what’s going on with AL Solutions sure seems to run contrary to acting Chairman Richard Engler’s promise of more transparency.