Sustained Outrage

Obama’s ‘timid’ legacy on chemical safety

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.  on April 17, 2013 night killed 15 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

This past weekend marked three years since the massive fire and explosion that killed 15 people at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. Yet despite this disaster and the time that’s gone by, the Dallas Morning News reports:

On the one hand, many of the ag-supply and feed stores that used to stock a lot of the fertilizer have stopped selling it, a Dallas Morning News investigation found. Others have beefed up safeguards, such as moving the chemical out of dilapidated buildings and into fire-resistant concrete structures. Fire officials now have the power to inspect sites, and fire departments are more likely to have had training to handle the hazardous material.

But many of the recommendations made by safety investigators have gone unheeded. None of the sites that responded to News inquiries said they had installed sprinklers systems. The state does not require them, but the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said such a system could have stopped the West accident before it became a fatal explosion.

And despite calls for keeping stockpiles of ammonium nitrate away from populated areas, in up to eight communities tons of the chemical still sit near schools, houses, nursing homes and even a hospital, according to a News analysis of state data.

Perhaps even more to the point, as the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility points out in a statement labeling the administration’s legacy on chemical plant safety issues as “timid”:

An Environmental Protection Agency proposal for preventing major industrial accidents is a step forward but only a very tiny one … The EPA plan is exceedingly narrow in scope, relies on voluntary actions and brings no enforcement heft toward averting chemical plant disasters that imperil both workers and communities.

The EPA proposal, announced in late February, is the main administrative response to what happened in West — and what’s happened in many other communities around the country under President Obama’s watch (see here, here, here and here) — yet it does not even cover fertilizer plants handling ammonium nitrate, exempts utilities and water treatment facilities, and most manufacturers that use covered hazardous substances from its safety technology requirements. Also, as PEER pointed out:

— The plan relies heavily on unfunded local voluntary committees for implementation;

— Industry analyses of inherently safer technology that prevent accidents are kept secret, and thus may remain little more than academic exercises;

— EPA has devoted little enforcement muscle to ensure that even the current requirements are followed.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said:

U.S. industrial safety will be left little improved by the faint imprint left in the Obama years.  This very modest proposal is the first major change to EPA’s Risk Management Program in 20 years – and we may not be able to afford waiting another 20 years to make significantly greater progress in reducing industrial hazards that endanger the public.

After 40 years, EPA to write spill prevention rule

Coal Water Pollution

There’s some significant news out this week, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreeing in a settlement with citizen groups to write a major new chemical plant safety rule. Here’s what the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a press release:

The Environmental Protection Agency will put in place new safeguards to help protect communities from dangerous chemical spills at tens of thousands of industrial facilities nationwide, under the terms of a legal settlement approved by a federal district court in New York. The agreement is meant to strengthen protections as called for by Congress more than four decades ago.

You can read the legal settlement here.

Last July, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), People Concerned About Chemical Safety, and the NRDC sued EPA alleging that the agency had failed to prevent hazardous substance spills from industrial facilities, including above-ground storage tanks. NRDC explained:

The settlement between the groups and EPA, approved by the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, requires EPA to begin a rulemaking process immediately and to finalize spill prevention rules within three and a half years.  The forthcoming protections will cover over 350 hazardous chemicals, and will apply broadly to tens of thousands of industrial facilities across the country.

There are thousands of hazardous substance spills each year from industrial facilities that are not subject to any hazardous substance spill prevention rules, according to United States Coast Guard data from the last ten years.  Chemicals released in industrial spills can contaminate waterways, and exposure to these substances can be dangerous, and in some instances, fatal. 

Pam Nixon, spokeswoman for PCACS, said:

It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to get EPA to agree to set spill prevention rules.  Uniform federal safeguards for above-ground storage tanks and secondary containment will better protect not only public drinking water systems, but also the groundwater for households using private wells.

But keep in mind, as explained in a legal filing in the case:

The chemical involved in the Freedom Industries spill is not listed as a hazardous substance under the Clean Water Act … and thus would not be covered under the hazardous-substance regulations plaintiffs seek in this case. But the Freedom industries spill brought to national attention the broader threat posed by the lack of spill-prevention regulations for chemical storage facilities like above-ground storage tanks.

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The chemical spill: Where things stand

Coal Water Pollution

It’s been two years since since a leaky tank at Freedom Industries spilled MCHM and other chemicals into the Kanawha Valley’s drinking water supply. Here’s a roundup of where things stand on various aspects of the Jan. 9, 2014, chemical spill story:

Criminal probe — Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin secured plea agreements with six former Freedom Industries officials and with Freedom’s corporate entity for criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act. One of those deals, though, allows former Freedom President Gary Southern to get back $7.3 million and a Bentley luxury car that were seized when he was charged for his role in the spill.

Public Service Commission investigation — A PSC investigation of West Virginia American Water Co.’s response to the Freedom spill has been stalled for more than a year. Commissioners, though, have recently hinted that they might drop the investigation. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22 on the matter. West Virginia American has been working to at least narrow the scope of the PSC probe, while also pushing for a large rate increase and facing a campaign by the group Advocates for a Safe Water System for a public takeover of the operation.

New state legislation — During the 2015 session, state lawmakers significantly rolled back the chemical tank safety provisions of SB 373, the law that unanimously passed in the months after the Freedom spill. The industry-based SB 423 exempted thousands of tanks from new Department of Environmental Protection Safety standards. In its second annual report, a water safety study commission recommended clarification of what information about chemical tanks could be released and urged continued funding of a Bureau for Public Health effort to help public utilities write source-water protection plans.

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Horowitz seeks return to Chemical Safety Board job

Lise Olsen has a story for the Houston Chronicle that folks who follow worker safety issues and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will want to check out:

Horowitz_OfficialThe managing director of a federal agency assigned to investigate the nation’s worst chemical accidents publicly asked this week to be allowed to return to work after being suspended for four months, according to information released on his behalf by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Dr. Daniel Horowitz, a Ph.D. chemist, led the U.S. Chemical Safety Board since 2010 but was placed on paid administrative leave on June 16 pending an investigation into “possible misconduct.” That leave has been extended twice, leaving the agency without its top administrator even as it conducted probes into an accident that killed four at the DuPont plant in La Porte, among other major accidents nationwide.

Importantly, Lise’s story notes:

The small agency has had no further deployments since March – despite a series of fatal accidents, fires and explosions reported at chemical plants. One incident involved a tank explosion at a Louisiana plant owned by Williams Partners, which already was the subject of another CSB probe. Another incident involved a fire that injured four at a SunEdison plant in Pasadena.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told Lise:

From what we can tell, the main thing the CSB is now investigating is its own executive staff.

Lise’s story said:

The CSB itself did not immediately issue a response. Its board meets Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss ongoing probes, including review of the West Fertilizer plant explosion, the DuPont La Porte gas leak and the accident at the plant owned by Williams Partners in Louisiana.

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Senate confirms new CSB chair, member

Important news from last week about the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. It’s there in the list of Senate confirmations:

Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

Kristen Marie Kulinowski, of New York, to be a Member of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board for a term of five years.

sutherlandVanessa Lorraine Allen Sutherland, of Virginia (right), to be Chairperson of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board for a term of five years.

Board member Rick Engler (who has been acting as chair of the panel) issued this statement:

I congratulate Vanessa Sutherland on her Senate confirmation as the new Chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Dr. Kristen Kulinowski on her Senate confirmation as CSB Board Member.   I look forward to working closely with them on the important work of the CSB to help prevent chemical incidents.  Both bring broad expertise and experience to their new positions.  Both were confirmed on August 6.

Let’s hope that somehow, someway, this action will get the board back on track to serve its vital function for workers and communities.

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.

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Will the Chemical Safety Board survive?

Kulinowski

Obama administration Chemical Safety Board nominee Kristen M. Kulinowski testifies during a Senate confirmation hearing last week.

It’s growing increasingly difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board finds itself in these days. Here’s one of the latest takes on things, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

The tiny federal agency that has urged big reforms in how California regulates oil refineries is in disarray.

To some, the strife at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — the 40-person authority charged with investigating industrial accidents and recommending ways to improve safety — bears strong resemblance to the headlines from developing nations:

Its leader, seen by critics as an autocrat, is forced out before his term is up. His successor takes charge in what detractors call a backroom maneuver and moves quickly to consolidate power, ordering loyalists of the ousted regime removed from their posts with the help of armed guards.

“What is going on at the Chemical Safety Board is a little slice of the eastern Ukraine here in Washington, D.C.,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that advocates for government workers.

Meanwhile, he said, the board’s mission of pushing regulatory reform is languishing. “The industrial infrastructure is getting older, and we’re not doing anything about it.”

Engler_RichardLRNow, when I interviewed the CSB’s acting chairman, Rick Engler, a few weeks ago, he had some solid things to say. But in some ways, the jury is probably still out. For example:

—  Chairman Engler said that he disagrees with efforts by chemical industry lobbyists to narrow the scope of the board’s investigatory authority, but he also emphasized his belief that the board itself needs to narrow its priorities.  “We are a very small agency and we can be most effective by focusing on a small number of issues,” Engler told me.

— While he says that we are currently at a critical time of the Obama administration when it comes to any potential chemical safety reforms, Chairman Engler also does what so many people in the labor community appear willing to do: Let the heads of agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration off the hook for not more aggressively using their rule-making authority these last nine years.  Engler noted his own view is “there isn’t any point” in criticizing OSHA chief David Michaels for his agency’s failure to move beyond the talking stage on the CSB’s “Most Wanted” safety reform: A new federal standard on deadly combustible dust. “The bottleneck is above his level and it’s unfortunate that we have a system that puts so many hurdles in front of urgently needed standards,”  Engler said.

The most impressive thing I heard from Chairman Engler, though, came when I asked him if he agreed with the conclusions of now-ousted Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso in a New York Times op-ed piece that the United States is facing “an industrial chemical safety crisis.” Chairman Engler said:

I think there is a continuing crisis and under my watch I don’t want to wake up in the morning and hear about the next disaster where we have multiple facilities. I really genuinely believe that enough is enough.

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Judge presses for deal on chemical spill records

Coal Water Pollution

The former site of Freedom Industries, shown in an Associated Press file photo take just after the January 2014 chemical spill. The tanks have since been removed.

We learned last week of some potential bombshell disclosures in the documents filed in the chemical spill case that’s being pursued against West Virginia American Water Co. and Eastman Chemical:

Eastman Chemical Co. did not properly caution Freedom Industries about the potential for the chemical Crude MCHM to corrode Freedom’s storage tanks prior to Freedom’s January 2014 leak that contaminated the Kanawha Valley region’s drinking water supply, lawyers for area residents allege in new court filings this week.

Lawyers for residents also alleged in their court filings that then-Freedom Industries official Dennis Farrell tried unsuccessfully on the morning of the leak to convince a West Virginia American Water Co. official to turn off the intake pumps on its Elk River treatment plant, located just 1.5 miles downstream from the site of the Freedom facility.

But we also know that key documents that could tell us more about all of this — and about the story of a long-forgotten intake West Virginia American originally had above the Freedom industrial site — remain under seal, pending a final ruling on their status by U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver.

On Friday, Judge Copenhaver pressed the parties in the litigation to come up with a deal about those records. In a two-page order, the judge said:

That counsel for all parties and any public document custodians be, and hereby are, directed to meet and confer on or before July 15, 2015, toward the end of reaching an agreement that would result in spreading on the public record the documents presently lodged with the court under seal as presented for filing on May 18, 2015, and May 28, 2015, and July 6, 2015.

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So much for Chemical Safety Board transparency

When last we left the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, President Obama had pushed out chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, and some other board members were making a lot of noise about the need for more transparency at the agency.

Fast forward to more recent events, and here’s what Government Executive reports has happened:

The Chemical Safety Board, still struggling with vacancies as it seeks stability following the forced resignation of its chairman in March, divided sharply last Thursday over an unusual procedural move that empowered the interim chairman.

Engler_RichardLRBoard member Rick Engler, Government Executive has learned, on Friday sent the staff a note, saying the board had voted to designate him the “Board Member Delegated Interim Executive and Administrative Authority in accordance with CSB Board Order 003,” and that he looked forward to “working collegially with my fellow board members and staff.”

… But critics, some from labor unions, say Engler’s special board vote to make himself acting chairman violated transparency rules and accords him too much power at a time when all await Senate confirmation of President Obama’s nomination for permanent CSB chairwoman, Vanessa Sutherland. Board member Mark Griffon’s five-year term also expires June 24.

Only two board members participated in Thursday’s vote, and it came in spite of an attempt by board member Manny Ehrlich to postpone it. Ehrlich, whose back ailment prevented his presence at the vote for acting chairman, on June 8 had sent the CSB associate general counsel a proposal for an interim sharing of power between him and Engler, saying the situation was unprecedented.

Ehrlich’s proposal attempted to “calendar” the vote, or delay it for a future public meeting. But sources familiar with the proceedings, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said board members Engler and Griffon, lacking a three-person quorum, conducted an “urgent” vote by email, and, rather than waiting for the required five days, ran it only briefly by the general counsel’s office before announcing results to staff.

The vote also removed a 180-day expiration date that was part of Board Order 003, meaning Engler’s appointment as acting chair now goes “in perpetuity” if the two remaining board members deadlock on any vote.

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The latest on the government’s MCHM studies

Coal Water Pollution

Here’s the latest new information from the federal government’s National Toxicology Program on its ongoing investigation of the Elk River chemical spill:

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) evaluated the potential maternal and prenatal toxicity of MCHM, the primary chemical spilled into the West Virginia Elk River. This update is a follow-­‐up to the December 2014 NTP Update,2 which reported the results of a preliminary study used to design this more comprehensive main study. The main study evaluated the effects of MCHM on maternal health and embryo and fetal development in rats following oral administration of MCHM at doses of 50, 100, 200, and 400 mg/kg/day. NTP found that MCHM decreased fetal weight and induced malformations in fetuses in the highest dose group of 400 mg/kg/day. A small decrease in fetal weight was observed in the 200 mg/kg/day dose group, which is similar to the small decrease in fetal weight observed in the 150 mg/kg/day dose group of the preliminary study.

There’s more:

At these dose levels, exposure to MCHM had no effect on maternal or fetal survival, and minimal effects were observed in maternal clinical pathology. The magnitude of these responses was small and not considered to adversely impact the health of the pregnant rat or the fetuses. Fetal weight was decreased significantly by 15 percent at 400 mg/kg/day, and a small decrease in fetal weight was observed in the 200 mg/kg/day dose group, which is consistent with the decrease in the 150 mg/kg/day dose group of the preliminary study. There were also increases in specific malformations in the 400 mg/kg/day group. The malformations included extra ribs in the lumbar and cervical region of the fetus and decreased fusion of cartilage to the sternum. Although not considered a malformation, increases in unossified (non-­‐mineralized bone) or incomplete ossification (partially mineralized bone) of the sternebrae (bones of the sternum) and vertebrae were observed in fetuses in the 400 mg/kg/day dose group. These effects on ossification are consistent with the decreased fetal weight, indicating delayed fetal growth.

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