Sustained Outrage

Tesoro

                                                                                                    Photo from U.S. CSB animation.

For folks in West Virginia who have a new-found interest in chemical safety in the wake of the Elk River chemical spill, the latest report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is worth a read. Here’s part of the press release issued today by the CSB:

The April 2010 fatal explosion and fire at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington was caused by damage to the heat exchanger, a mechanism known as “high temperature hydrogen attack” or HTHA, which severely cracked and weakened carbon steel tubing leading to a rupture, according to a CSB draft report released today. The draft report makes far-reaching recommendations to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Governor and State Legislature of the State of Washington to more rigorously protect workers and communities from potentially catastrophic chemical releases …

“Seven lives were tragically lost at the Tesoro refinery in 2010,” said Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, CSB chairperson. “I believe the draft report does an outstanding job of tracing this complex accident to its roots: a deficient refinery safety culture, weak industry standards for safeguarding equipment, and a regulatory system that too often emphasizes activities rather than outcomes. The report is a clarion call for refinery safety reform.”

Using sophisticated computer models, the investigation found the industry-wide method used to predict the risk of HTHA damage to be inaccurate, with equipment failures occurring under conditions the deemed to be safe from HTHA. It cited deficiencies in the company’s safety culture that led to a “complacent” attitude toward flammable leaks and occasional fires. Investigators also determined that during the unit startup, Tesoro did not correct the history of hazardous conditions or limit the number of people involved in the hazardous non-routine startup of the heat exchangers. But because of the reoccurring leaks and the need to manually open a series of long-winded valves that required over one hundred turns by hand to fully open, a supervisor requested five additional workers to help. All seven lost their lives as a result of the blast.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

The accident at Tesoro could have been prevented had the company applied inherent safety principles and used HTHA resistant construction materials to prevent the heat exchanger cracking. This accident is very similar to the one that occurred at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California in August 2012, where corrosion of piping went undetected for decades until it ruptured, endangering the lives of 19 workers caught in a vapor cloud and sending 15,000 community members to the hospital. Companies must do a better job of preventing refinery accidents, which occur all too frequently.

Regarding the U.S. EPA, the CSB report recommended:

Revise the Chemical Accident Prevention Provisions under 40 CFR Part 68 to require the documented use of inherently safer systems analysis and the hierarchy of controls to the greatest extent feasible in establishing safeguards for identified process hazards. Until this revision is in effect, develop guidance and enforce the use of inherently safer systems analysis and the hierarchy of controls to the greatest extent feasible in establishing safeguards for identified process hazards through the Clean Air Act’s General Duty Clause.

West Virginians may recall that the issue of industry not focusing on “inherently safer” designs and technology was discussed for many years regarding the former Union Carbide (now Bayer CropScience) plant in Institute and its now-dismantled stockpile of the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate, or MIC.  And, we’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of a National Academy of Sciences report that noted the lack of focus by industry on the concept of inherently safer practices:

Key obstacles to their use include lack of familiarity with the tools among chemical process industry decision makers and the fear that the methods are either too simplistic or too costly to use … The use of these techniques could benefit not only the communities at risk from safety breaches, but also the industries themselves, as decision making techniques can help with the identification of profitable safety solutions that otherwise could be overlooked.

Part 2: How many jobs would a cracker create?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

The potential construction of a natural gas “cracker” plant was understandably a big topic of discussion yesterday at Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Energy Summit here in Charleston. Unfortunately, though, state officials continue to misstate the findings of an industry jobs study in their rhetoric about what a big deal such a plant would be for West Virginia’s economy.

In opening the conference, Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, for example, cited the American Chemistry Council study and said it found such a facility would create “12,000 direct and downstream jobs.”

Then, during a very brief luncheon speech, Gov. Tomblin cited the same study and said it showed a cracker plant here would create 12,000 jobs in the “chemical and polymer industries.”

We’ve discussed this study before on this blog (see here), and tried to explain what it does and doesn’t say. You can read the study documents for yourself here, here and here. But this is the bottom line, quoting from my previous post on this:

Table 1 outlines the estimated ongoing (permanent) jobs that might be created if a company invests $3.2 billion in a major cracker facility here: About 12,300 total jobs. That figure includes 2,500 direct jobs, 6,300 indirect jobs and 3,500 induced jobs. As Kevin Swift, the council’s chief economist, just explained to me, that total number of jobs — the 12,000 figure the governor cited in his speech on statewide television and radio, before a joint session of the Legislature — includes all manner of jobs. It is not only direct manufacturing jobs, but positions with suppliers and support industries — everything from a waitress at a new cafe across the road from the plant to a doctor who starts a practice to serve residents in a growing community.

But they’re not all manufacturing jobs, and the ACC study doesn’t provide more detail that would give a clearer picture of how many jobs in various sectors with various levels of pay and benefits might be includes. You can get perhaps a bit more information by looking at the average wages for each category — $112,000 annually for direct jobs and $34,000 for indirect. But that’s a basic average, and may not tell the whole story.

It’s true that Gov. Tomblin said later in his talk that the cracker would provide:

.. Billions of dollars of economic impact that will affect every aspect of our economy, from locally owned grocery stores to plastics manufacturers.

But his speech still confuses the general public into thinking that  a West Virginia cracker plant would create 12,000 jobs in manufacturing or in the chemical industry, because he overstates what this study found. There’s no question such a project would have a huge economic impact — so why do state leaders insist on exaggerating things?

CSB proposes refinery safety overhaul

Chevron_Vapor_Cloud_0021

In a draft report released to the public today, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is urging an overhaul of the way refineries are regulated in California, calling on officials to replace the current patchwork of rules with a more rigorous, performance-based regulatory regime. The proposal, similar to those successfully adopted in the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia, is known as the “safety case” system and could serve as a model for U.S.-wide safety reforms.

The draft report is the second part of three in the CSB’s investigation of the August 2012 process fire in the crude unit at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. That fire endangered 19 workers and sent more than 15,000 residents to the hospital for medical attention. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

After exhaustively analyzing the facts, the CSB investigation team found many ways that major refinery accidents like the Chevron fire could be made less likely by improving regulations.

Refinery safety rules need to focus on driving down risk to the lowest practicable level, rather than completing required paperwork. Companies, workers, and communities will all benefit from a rigorous system like the safety case.

I believe California could serve as a model for the nation by adopting this system. We applaud the work of the Governor’s Interagency Task Force for their proactive approach and highly positive recommendations to protect worker and public safety in California. I have great confidence that California will embrace the recommendations in our draft report and carry them forward to implement policy change.

The CSB’s press release explains:

As detailed in the CSB draft report, the safety case regime requires companies to demonstrate to refinery industry regulators – through a written “safety case report” – how major hazards are to be controlled and risks reduced to “as low as reasonably practicable,” or ALARP. The CSB report notes that the safety case is more than a written document; rather, it represents a fundamental change by shifting the responsibility for continuous reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the company.

To ensure that a facility’s safety goals and programs are accomplished, a safety case report generated by the company is rigorously reviewed, audited, and enforced by highly trained regulatory inspectors, whose technical training and experience are on par with the personnel employed by the companies they oversee, the draft report says.

The draft report comes about four months after the CSB released an “interim report” that found Chevron  repeatedly failed over a ten-year period to apply inherently safer design principles and upgrade piping in its crude oil processing unit, which was extremely corroded and ultimately ruptured on August 6, 2012.

The interim report identified missed opportunities on the part of Chevron to apply inherently safer piping design through the use of more corrosion-resistant metal alloys. The interim report also found a failure by Chevron to identify and evaluate damage mechanism hazards, which if acted upon, would likely have identified the possibility of a catastrophic sulfidation corrosion-related piping failure. There are currently no federal or state regulatory requirements to apply these important preventative measures. The investigation team concluded that enhanced regulatory oversight with greater worker involvement and public participation are needed to improve petroleum refinery safety.

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Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

India Bhopal Gas
Children born with congenital diseases caused by the exposure of their parents to the gas leakage in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, participate in a candlelight vigil to pay homage to the people killed in the tragedy, in Bhopal, India, Monday Dec. 2, 2013. The Bhopal industrial disaster killed about 4,000 people on the night of Dec. 3, 1984. The death toll over the next few years rose to 15,000, according to government estimates. A quarter century later, many of those who were exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. Placard in foreground reads: “Tribute”. (AP Photo/Rajeev Gupta)

Twenty-nine years ago today, thousands of people were killed by a toxic leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. As Kanawha Valley residents know, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience.

For many years, local residents lived in fear of a Bhopal-type disaster here. They pointed to the Institute plant’s huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly chemical that leaked at Bhopal.  Luckily, nothing of that size or scale has happened. Smaller leaks, fires and explosions over the years have claimed workers’ lives. Pressure for Bayer to get rid of the MIC stockpile increased dramatically following an explosion and fire that killed two workers in August 2008. The Institute plant  came under new scrutiny after that, with a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that provided the most telling look to date about the dangers the facility presented.

Then in March 2011, Bayer announced its landmark decision to never restart its MIC unit in Institute.

Today, on the other side of the world, survivors and others are remembering what happened back in 1984. The Times of India has several stories marking the anniversary. One piece, headlined No grooms for Bhopal gas victim girls, reports:

Fatima Bi, resident of Barkheda was just six years old when the Union Carbide gas tragedy struck on the intervening midnight of December 2-3, 1984. Today she is 35 years-old and hates family members for even uttering the word “marriage” in her presence. Her mother and two brothers tried to find her a suitable match but every prospective groom refused to marry her because she is a gas tragedy victim.

“They think marrying a gas girl victim would mean spending the boy’s entire life’s earnings on her medical treatment,” explained Fatima’s mother, Feroza Bi. “They are also afraid that a gas victim girl would give birth to deformed and disabled children. When we failed to get a match for her from Bhopal, we tried the other districts Raisen, Sagar, Burhanpur and Jabalpur. My daughter is overweight and the grooms’ relatives thought that too was because she inhaled the poisonous gas as a child.”

According to Fatima argued the grooms’ relatives would invariably ask her if she had any health problems. “I told them that I had the usual stomach and back pains sometimes when I worked on the household chores. But it all came down to my being a gas victim. In the end, the groom would refuse marriage because he was not prepared to take the responsibility of a gas affected victim.” Unemployed and living with her mother, Fatima said she does not regret her single status. “Other gas victim girls in the neighbourhood who got married have been deserted by their husbands. At least I didn’t have to suffer that humiliation.”

Kausar Jehan (33) of Jehangirabad is another gas victim woman who could not be married. She stitches clothes and works night and day sowing embroidery work on sarees to make her ends meet. In Karond, Laxmi Bai (40) daughter of Tulsiram says she has never dared dream of a fairy-tale handsome prince after she was blinded in the gas tragedy at the age of 11. Lying in her cot, she said that no one marries a blind gas victim girl. The government gives her a pension of Rs 150 for being a handicapped victim.

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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.”

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Meeting set on Bayer chemical hazards report

This announcement just in from the National Academy of Sciences:

The National Academy of Sciences will hold a meeting on June 23 in Dunbar, W.Va., on its congressionally mandated report The Use and Storage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) at Bayer CropScience, which was released in May.  Several members of the committee that wrote the report — Elsa Reichmanis (chair), Paul Amyotte, Michael Elliott, and Michael Lindell — will present its findings and take questions from the audience. 

The report finds that Bayer CropScience sought to reduce risks associated with the manufacturing and storage of the toxic chemical MIC at its processing plant in Institute, W.Va.  However, the company did not make an effort to incorporate all possible hazard control methods, and not all chemical manufacturing plants have adopted safer processes that aim to minimize or eliminate hazards.  The committee recommended that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board or another entity develop a framework to help managers at chemical plants choose among alternative processing options — considering factors such as safety, environmental impact, and product yield — to develop a safer chemical manufacturing system.

The event will start at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Saturday, June 23, in Room 135 of the University Union at West Virginia State University.

See previous coverage of the NAS report here and here.

Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via Associated Press

Some readers may have forgotten by now about the congressional mandate that the National Academy of Sciences study the potential for Bayer CropScience to rid its Institute chemical plant of its huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly pesticide ingredient that caused the deaths of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, back in December 1984. In some ways, the need for the study ended a year ago, when Bayer announced that it was not going to restart the MIC unit out in Institute.

But by then, a national panel of experts appointed by the academy’s National Research Council had already begun its work. The focus of the study shifted slightly. It still included a look at the Institute plant and MIC, but used that framework for a broader examination of how chemical companies make decisions about what products they make and use, and to try to figure out better ways to have those decisions lead to less risk for workers and for people who live near manufacturing facilities.

Well, this morning the National Research Council report is out, and the broad conclusion is, basically, that chemical companies and the agencies that regulate them need to do more to ensure inherently safer processes are fully considered and more frequently used.  As the report issued this morning explains, tools that would help companies properly consider risks and make such decisions “have yet to take hold in the chemical process industry.” The report goes on:

Key obstacles to their use include lack of familiarity with the tools among chemical process industry decision makers and the fear that the methods are either too simplistic or too costly to use … The use of these techniques could benefit not only the communities at risk from safety breaches, but also the industries themselves, as decision making techniques can help with the identification of profitable safety solutions that otherwise could be overlooked.

Regarding Bayer and the Institute plant specifically, a news release summarizing the new report had this to say:

The committee found that Bayer did incorporate some aspects of risk reduction that are associated with inherently safer process principles. However, the inherent safety considerations were not explicitly stated in Bayer’s process safety management guidelines and were dependent on the knowledge base of the individual facilitating the particular activity, such as a process hazard analysis. Moreover, Bayer and the previous owners of the plant performed hazard and safety assessments and made business decisions that resulted in MIC inventory reduction, elimination of above ground MIC storage, and adoption of various measures, but these assessments did not incorporate some of the key principles of the inherently safer process.

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CSB finds problems at DuPont plant in Buffalo, N.Y.

Just seven months after a devastating report on workplace safety practices at DuPont Co.’s chemical plant in Belle, W.Va., the U.S. Chemical Safety Board today is releasing another report about DuPont, this one detailing problems that led to a November 2010 explosion that killed one and injured another contract welder at a DuPont plant outside of Buffalo, N.Y. CSB officials said the explosion was caused by the ignition of flammable vinyl fluoride inside a large process tank, a hazard which had been overlooked by DuPont engineers:

The CSB found that that sparks or heat from the welding, which took place on top of the tank, most likely ignited the vapor. The CSB said a primary cause of the blast was the failure of the company to require that the interior of storage tanks – on which hot work is to be performed ­– be monitored for flammable vapor. A proposed recommendation urges DuPont to require monitoring the inside of storage before performing any hot work, which is defined as welding, cutting, grinding, or other spark-producing activities.

Noting the CSB issued a safety bulletin on the dangers of hot work in March 2010, CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said:
I find it tragic that we continue to see lives lost from hot work accidents, which occur all too frequently despite long-known procedures that can prevent them. Facility managers have an obligation to assure the absence of a flammable atmosphere in areas where hot work is to take place. Explosion hazards can be eliminated by testing inside tanks as well as in the areas around them.

The accident occurred at the DuPont chemical plant in Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo, which employs approximately 600 workers. The facility produces polymers and surface materials for countertops, sold under the trade names Tedlar® and Corian®. The process for making Tedlar involves transferring polyvinyl fluoride (PVF) slurry from a reactor through a flash tank and then into storage tanks. The tanks were also inter-connected by an overflow line. The CSB found the company erroneously had determined that any vinyl fluoride vapor that might enter the tanks would remain below flammable limits.

Days before the incident the process had been shut down for tank maintenance due to corrosion on tank agitator supports. The fill lines were locked out for safety. Tanks 2 and 3 were repaired and the process restarted, but work on tank 1 was delayed because the necessary parts were not available. Finally, a contract welder and foreman were engaged to repair the agitator support atop tank 1. Although tank 1 remained locked out from the main process, the overflow line remained open which connected tank 1 to tanks 2 and 3. The CSB determined that flammable vinyl fluoride flowed through the overflow line into tank 1 and accumulated to explosive concentrations. Investigators found that while a facility hot work permit was issued for the task, the DuPont personnel who signed it were not sufficiently knowledgeable about the Tedlar chemical process.

Although DuPont personnel monitored the atmosphere above the tank prior to authorizing hot work, no monitoring was done inside the tank to see if any flammable vapor existed there. The CSB investigation found the hot work ignited the vapor as a result of the increased temperature of the metal tank, sparks falling into the tank, or vapor wafting from the tank into the hot work area.

The explosion blew most of the top off the tank, leaving it and the agitator assembly hanging over the edge. The welder died instantly from blunt force trauma, and the foreman received first-degree burns and minor injuries.

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Long story of Monsanto and dioxin continues


Five of the plaintiffs in the 1984 dioxin lawsuit against Monsanto Co. in Nitro stand outside the courtroom. Left to right: John Hein, James Ray Boggess, June Martin, Gene Thomas and Charles Farley. Each man sued Monsanto for $4 million each, alleging that exposure to chemicals at the Nitro plant threatened their lives.  After an 11-month trial, jurors awarded $200,000 to Hein, but ruled against the other workers. Gazette file photo.

Over the last few weeks, the Gazette’s Kate White and I have been covering the run-up to the big class-action lawsuit trial against Monsanto Co. over alleged contamination of the town of Nitro by the company’s former chemical-making operations there.

Jury selection began last week, after another mediation effort failed. Once a jury is picked and trial begins, jurors will be asked to award thousands of current and former residents medical monitoring to allow early detection of diseases potentially linked to dioxin exposure. Several years ago, we published a lengthy Sunday story that explains in much more detail the allegations in the lawsuit (subscription required) about how Monsanto polluted the town.

As the photo above and Sunday’s story explained, this is certainly not the first major legal action to focus on Monsanto and dioxin:

An early sign of dioxin’s effects came in March 1949. A massive explosion rocked the Nitro plant when a pressure valve blew on a 2,4,5-T cooking container. More than 220 workers got sick.

Years later, more than 170 workers sued Monsanto, alleging dioxin exposure at the plant had made them ill. Cases involving seven of the workers went to trial in federal court in 1984.

After an 11-month trial, a jury awarded one of the workers, John Hein, $200,000 for bladder cancer he contracted because of exposure at the plant to another chemical, para-aminobiphynol, or PAB.

Jurors found that dioxin had made the other workers sick and that Monsanto had not acted diligently in seeking to determine the possible impact of exposure on worker health.

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OSHA expands chemical plant safety program

 

Photo via AP by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail

The U.S. Department of Labor announced today:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration today issued a new National Emphasis Program* (NEP) for chemical facilities to protect workers from catastrophic releases of highly hazardous chemicals.

he new NEP replaces OSHA’s 2009 pilot Chemical Facility National Emphasis Program which covered several OSHA regions around the country. The program* establishes policies and procedures for inspecting workplaces that are covered by OSHA’s process safety management (PSM) standard. The program’s inspection process includes detailed questions designed to gather facts related to PSM requirements and verification that employers’ written and implemented PSM programs are consistent. The intent of the NEP is to conduct focused inspections at facilities randomly selected from a list of worksites likely to have highly hazardous chemicals in quantities covered by the standard.

This expansion of the program was one of the recommendations made to OSHA by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in the board’s report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va.

OSHA chief David Michaels said:

Far too many workers are injured and killed in preventable incidents at chemical facilities around the country. This program will enable OSHA inspectors to cover chemical facilities nationwide to ensure that all required measures are taken to protect workers.