Sustained Outrage

Chemical safety work frozen by federal shutdown

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)

We’ve been writing in the Gazette and on my Coal Tattoo blog about the potential impacts of the federal government shutdown on coal-mine safety and health. Meanwhile, others have made clear the impacts on other types of industrial and public safety matters.  Take for example this story from the Dallas Morning News:

Federal efforts to improve chemical safety and investigate what went wrong in the deadly West fertilizer blast are stalled because of the partial government shutdown, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Tuesday.

Boxer, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate’s environment and public works committee, said that means deadlines set by President Barack Obama for Cabinet members and agency heads to review and overhaul regulations, safety practices, data-sharing and emergency response won’t be met.

The first deadline, for agencies to submit proposals for improvements, is Nov. 1.

The shutdown also is delaying the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the blast.

“That explosion is a prime example of the situation we’re in now, where the agencies that are supposed to come up with ways to make sure this never happens again just can’t meet,” she said at a news conference.

Momentum on improving chemical safety and security in wake of the West disaster is also at risk in the shutdown, Boxer said.

Obama issued his executive order on Aug. 1. The order imposed a series of deadlines, the first of which is a few weeks away. Multiple federal agencies had to submit preliminary proposals for improvements.

But those will “definitely be delayed,” Boxer said.

Another story in the Dallas paper examined the important issue of strengthening regulations on ammonium nitrate:

Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not allowed in Afghanistan. The country banned it three years ago because of its use in bombs against NATO soldiers.

The fertilizer’s explosive nature has led to similar prohibitions elsewhere, including China, Colombia, Germany, Ireland and the Philippines.

But in the United States, you can purchase it pure by the ton. Then you can store it in a wooden warehouse with no sprinkler system, a few hundred feet from a middle school.

That’s what happened in the Central Texas farming town of West, where an explosion destroyed nearby schools, houses and a nursing home. The blast killed 15 people, including 12 first responders. Several hundred more suffered injuries, some as severe as broken bones, ruptured organs and blindness.

For more than a decade, U.S. efforts to tighten controls over ammonium nitrate fertilizer have repeatedly failed, bogged down by bureaucratic gridlock and industry resistance. Regulations approved years ago remain unenforced and unfinished. Mere talk of safer substitutes has been blocked by those with profits at stake.

In fact, just 13 days before the West disaster, the only two remaining U.S. manufacturers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer pleaded for Washington’s help to preserve their $300 million annual market. Company executives bemoaned the “terrible toll” of regulation and the “pressure” of increased competition from nonexplosive substitutes.

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Water quality, the Kanawha River and ORSANCO

FishShock3  ..  8x5.09  Tues.  ellis photo

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Today’s Gazette featured a front-page story that highlighted a visit to Charleston by the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission — known as ORSCANO — and the group’s portable aquarium, which was stocked with some fish capture during a shocking exercise on the Kanawha River. As the story explained:

A diverse assortment of fish from the vicinity of the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers in downtown Charleston was captured by electro-fishing biologists Monday to fill a mobile aquarium now on display at Haddad Riverfront Park.

Personnel from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) stunned the fish with a carefully moderated electric current sent into the water from cables dangling from a pair of bow-mounted booms. The stunned fish were then netted, placed in an onboard tank, and transported to the aquarium.

The story also included some interesting comments from John Wirts, a biologist with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

A lot of people have the assumption that the Kanawha River is polluted and doesn’t support many fish.  With the passage of the Clean Water Act and the end of untreated sewage being dumped in the river, that’s no longer the case. We want people in this area to know how much cleaner and full of life the river is, compared to how it used to be … Back then, oxygen levels were near zero during parts of the summer, and every summer fish died.

It’s certainly true that the passage of national environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act has cleaned up our country’s waterways, and local rivers and streams like the Kanawha and the Elk have benefited from reduced pollution loads. But the popular storyline from regulatory agencies often can overlook the remaining challenges for public health and the environment.

For example, if you review the latest statewide water quality report from the WVDEP (start, for example, on page 28 of the narrative) you’ll find that serious problems remain for the Kanawha River.  As Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told me today:

Of course it’s encouraging to see the rebound of life, though the fish still are too toxic to eat. All of WV’s waters have fish consumption advisories; people are advised not to eat fish at all from the Lower Kanawha downstream of Dunbar.  The Lower Kanawha, including the section at the confluence of the Elk, is also listed as impaired by fecal coliform so sewage is still an issue and the safety of water contact recreation is also a concern. So, we still have a ways to go to restore our right to a swimmable, fishable river.

It’s also worth pointing out that ORSANCO, a multi-state commission that sets water quality standards for the Ohio River, is in Charleston for meetings that include at least one pretty significant agenda item:  A proposal to delay for two years the date after which pollution “mixing zones” are not allowed for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern, or BCCs. Generally speaking,  such zones allow pollution limits to be met some distance downstream from industrial outfalls, after pollution discharges has been diluted with river water. Also generally speaking, eliminating the mixing zones could force companies to have to cut back on their pollution discharges in the first place.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve written here before about ORSANCO’s decision a year ago to grant PPG Industries a variance from the commission’s move to outlaw mixing zones — in PPG’s case for toxic mercury discharges.

Groups like the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are opposed to the delay in eliminating these mixing zones. In one recent comment letter, for example, the Rivers Coalition explained:

ORSANCO, states and dischargers have had ten years to prepare for this deadline and few dischargers have taken action to reduce their discharge of mercury or determined if they need to take advantage of the variance procedure which ORSANCO adopted approximately one year ago. A deadline extension rewards dischargers for their procrastination and negligence, negates accountability and undermines ORSANCO’s authority in setting firm deadlines.

Natural Gas, fracking

We’ve written many times before here about the questions surrounding the climate change implications of the boom in natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale and other shale-gas formations around the country (see here, here, here, here and here).

Last week in the Gazette, we reported on the results of one of the most significant studies to date concerning methane emissions from natural gas drilling and production. The study is available online here, and here’s a bit of the way its results were described in the University of Texas press release:

A new study from The University of Texas at Austin reports on extensive measurements of methane emissions — including the first measurements for methane emissions taken directly at the well pad — during completion operations for hydraulically fractured wells. A team of researchers from UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and environmental testing firms URS and Aerodyne Research completed measurements at 190 natural gas production sites across the United States.

The study, a unique partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund, participating companies, an independent Scientific Advisory Panel and the study team:

— Is based on measurements made directly at 190 production sites throughout the United States, with access provided by nine participating energy companies.

— Found that the majority of hydraulically fractured well completions, which were sampled during the study, had equipment in place that reduces methane emissions by 99 percent. Because of this equipment, methane emissions from well completions are 97 percent lower than calendar year 2011 national emission estimates, released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2013.

–Found that emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices are 30 percent to several times higher than current EPA estimates for this equipment; combined, emissions from pneumatics and equipment leaks account for about 40 percent of estimated national emissions of methane from natural gas production.

— Found that the total methane emissions from natural gas production, from all sources measured in the study, were comparable to the most recent EPA estimates.

In summarizing the study, The Associated Press put it this way:

Drilling and fracking for natural gas don’t seem to spew immense amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the air, as has been feared, a new study says.

The findings bolster a big selling point for natural gas, that it’s not as bad for global warming as coal. And they undercut a major environmental argument against fracking, a process that breaks apart deep rock to recover more gas. The study, mostly funded by energy interests, doesn’t address other fracking concerns about potential air and water pollution.

And the L.A. Times put it this way:

Emissions of methane from natural gas well sites across the United States have fallen in a key part of the drilling process, despite the boom in natural gas development, according to a study published Monday.

The rise in natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has stoked concerns about leakage and venting into the atmosphere of methane, a chief component. Far more carbon dioxide is emitted than methane, but methane is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Researchers from the University of Texas found, however, that new equipment reduced emissions last year at 190 natural gas sites by 99% in one key step in the well-drilling process.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which helped organize the study, said this in its own press release:

The UT study, which only deals with the extraction phase of the natural gas supply chain, is the opening chapter in this broader scientific effort designed to advance the current understanding of the climate implications of methane emissions resulting from the U.S. natural gas boom. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas — 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. The nation’s largest single source of methane emissions is the vast network of infrastructure, including wells, pipelines and storage facilities, that supplies U.S. natural gas. Experts agree that methane leaked or vented from natural gas operations is a real concern, yet estimated emission rates vary greatly — from 1 to 8 percent of total production.

“We know that immediate methane reductions are critical to slow climate change,” said Fred Krupp, president of EDF. “But we don’t yet have a handle on how much is being emitted. We need better data, and that’s what this series of studies will deliver. As we understand the scope of what’s happening across the natural gas system, we will be able to address it. We already know enough to get started reducing emissions, and thanks to the first study, we know that new EPA regulations to reduce wellhead emissions are effective. EPA got it right.”

And here’s what the folks at the industry group Energy In Depth had to say:

For years, critics of hydraulic fracturing have alleged that “methane leaks” from development are not only astronomically high, but also make natural gas from shale a climate “disaster” and “gang-plank.” But a new, highly anticipated report from the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund might put that theory to rest – at last, and for good.

In my Gazette piece, I tried to take a pretty cautious approach with this study. Here’s how that story began:

A major study out this week has provided valuable new data about the global warming pollution from natural gas production, but still leaves unanswered questions about the climate change impacts of an industry that’s booming in West Virginia.

University of Texas researchers found slightly lower overall emissions rates for the powerful greenhouse gas methane than previously estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other scientific studies.

Working with industry and the Environmental Defense Fund, the researchers measured actual emissions from parts of the natural-gas production process at 190 sites around the country.

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Jim Justice

It wasn’t so long ago that West Virginia lawmakers were hearing a report from state regulators about the potentially dangerous conditions at various dams around our state.  The Daily Mail’s Zack Harold covered the legislative hearing and reported:

West Virginia’s watershed dams are old, getting older and need to be repaired, but no one knows how much that will cost, or even what kinds of repairs are needed.

Brian Farkas, executive director of the West Virginia Conservation Agency, said about 100 of the state’s 170 watershed dams do not meet current design standards, but the agency needs to have engineers review the structures to prioritize what should be repaired first and how much those repairs likely would cost.  But no matter how much the repairs cost, the agency likely would not be able to afford them.

While that story focused on publicly owned flood-control dams around West Virginia, the state also has quite an inventory of privately owned water-retaining structures that aren’t up to legally mandated standards and don’t have a “certificate of approval” — the dam control law’s term for permits — from the state Department of Environmental Protection. This is a problem that’s been around for a while, and that can keep DEP officials up at night when we get a big rain. Here’s the current list of the state’s most deficient dams, as published by the DEP dam safety office in the State Register about a year ago. You can see it’s not like WVDEP has been overly aggressive or in any big hurry to really pound on dam owners who have never complied with the law.

But every so often, dam safety officials seem to discover another dam out there that they didn’t really know about — one that was built without state approval, or built before the state passed its dam safety law following the deaths of 125 people when a coal-slurry dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County collapsed in February 1972. That’s what happened a few years ago when WVDEP began investigating coal-ash dams after one such structure failed down in Tennessee. And in recent years, there was at least one other incident I’m aware of where WVDEP had trouble keeping track of the condition of a dam.

And that’s apparently what happened back in 2008, when the management at Glade Springs Resort obtained state approval for a new dam at Chatham Lake. A WVDEP dam safety inspector was visiting the site, to perform a required inspection during construction, and apparently noticed this other dam, the Mallard Lake Dam that didn’t have a certificate of approval and appeared to pose some danger to vehicles coming and going from the property, located as it was right along the main access road to Glade Springs.

What followed was a WVDEP order that required the resort owners to obtain a certificate of approval and also file required emergency response and maintenance plans for the Mallard Lake structure, and a series of letters back and forth. I’ve posted the order here, and the correspondence here, here, here and here. You can read it for yourself.

Things got more interesting — at least publicly — yesterday, when the Beckley paper ran two stories about the matter, based apparently almost entirely on a letter Glade Springs owner Jim Justice wrote to the owners of homes on the resort property.  One story was headlined Possible Glade dam order could cost $9.2 million and it started out like this:

According to a letter sent from Jim Justice to property owners at The Resort at Glade Springs, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) will order that the roadway around Mallard Lake and its dam be raised approximately 40 feet, which Justice said would cause the entrance road to be closed for 24 months and cost the Property Owners Association $9.2 million.

The other story was headlined Justice takes stand for West Virginia and can most fairly be described as a rant against WVDEP by Jim Justice. For example:

As The Resort at Glade Springs owner takes his issues with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to the people who live in the gated community, he says he wants to be clear on one thing.

“I have no issue whatsoever with money or whatever is going to have to take place to correct this situation,” Justice said.

“That’s not my issue at all. My issue is wrapped up in the fact that this type of behavior, whether it’s done to Jim Justice or whether it’s done to John Doe, this type of stuff is what continues to kill us. It just destroys our state. The common everyday guy is the victim.”

Justice said his fear is not about the road closure at Glade Springs, but the impact it may have on business owners living there.

“Who knows that there isn’t 10 prominent people living in Glade Springs that have businesses in West Virginia that say, ‘That’s it. I can’t take any more.’ Because they’re getting bombarded with the same kind of stuff.”

He said he fears they will move their businesses to surrounding states, like North Carolina, Virginia or Kentucky.

“Who’s the next person that’s going to leave? It’s really difficult.”

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Sen. Joe Manchin
We’ve written before (see here. here and here) about legislation crafted in part by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to finally rewrite the nation’s toxic chemical safety law.

Well, it turns out that a number of states around the country aren’t too happy with this bill. They’re worried that Congress is attempting to override their own steps to enact tougher safety rules for chemicals and for other environmental threats like climate change. As we wrote in a story late last month:

A major rewrite of the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals is under fire from states that say the bill — co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — usurps their authority to set their own safety standards.

The debate over which level of government should take the lead on chemical safety comes after Manchin’s repeated complaints that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversteps its authority on mountaintop removal and other coal industry issues.

Covering a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Public Works, we explained:

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she is concerned that the bill could roll back her state’s landmark 1986 law to protect consumers from toxic materials. California officials also are worried that the bill could undermine the state’s water quality laws and its efforts to combat global warming.

Michael Troncoso, senior counsel to California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, testified about the matter during Wednesday’s hearing. So did Ken Zarker, pollution prevention and regulatory assistance section manager at the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Troncoso submitted a letter signed by attorneys general in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state to “urge Congress not to undermine the traditional role of the states in protecting their citizens from toxic chemicals.

“The federal government must regulate chemical safety so that there is a minimum level of protection across the nation,” Troncoso told lawmakers. “At the same time, we urge the committee to recognize and honor the long-standing authority of the states to act alongside the federal government to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens — to act as laboratories of innovation in the area of toxics regulation and to tackle the problem of dangerous chemicals as a partner with the federal government.”

morriseyAnother West Virginia public official who has made a lot of noise about ensuring that the federal government doesn’t usurp the rights of states to chart their own course on environmental regulations is Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (see here and here). Given his interest in protecting the rights of states, I thought it would be interesting to see what he thought of Sen. Manchin’s legislation. When West Virginia leaders fight federal efforts to crack down on the coal industry, is their effort about protecting the rights of states, or is it more about helping industries avoid tougher regulations?

So on Aug. 2, a couple of days after the Senate hearing, I asked Morrisey’s publicist, Beth Ryan:

Given his interest in ensuring no federal overreach onto the authority of states, I wondered if Attorney General Morrisey or his staff have looked at this legislation and have any thoughts on it, particularly regarding the concerns expressed by other states about pre-emption of their chemical safety rules.

Today, I heard back from Ms. Ryan. Here’s what she said:

The Office of the Attorney General has no comment on this issue.


New warning on greenhouse impacts of natural gas


We’ve written before on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here) about the ongoing scientific debate over the impact that methane emissions from the natural gas industry could have on global warming, and on the potential for natural gas to help deal with that problem or, at least, serve as a “bridge” to a cleaner energy future based on renewables.

Now, there’s anther significant study out that adds to the discussion. The study itself provides a possible warning about natural gas emissions, but the report is already getting some criticism from both industry and environmental groups.

Here’s the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder:

On a perfect winter day in Utah’s Uintah County in 2012, scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tested out a new way to measure methane emissions from a natural gas production field.

Their results, accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, constitute a proof-of-concept that could help both researchers and regulators better determine how much of the greenhouse gas and other air pollutants leak from oil and gas fields. The measurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.

And from that release, here’s the paper’s central conclusion:

The team determined that methane emissions from the oil and natural gas fields in Uintah County totaled about 55,000 kg (more than 120,000 lbs) an hour on the day of the flight. That emission rate is about 6 to 12 percent of the average hourly natural gas production in Uintah County during the month of February.

A recent federal report estimated that methane’s leak rate, nationally, is less than 1 percent of production; another report noted that emissions in the Uintah (“Uinta”) Basin, which produces about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas, may have higher emissions than typical for western gas fields. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General has called for better emissions data from the natural gas sector, and this paper is one of the first published since. 

The industry group Energy In Depth has criticized the paper  noting it’s based on just one day’s worth of data, and commenting:

Some will see the publication of NOAA’s latest research as a reason to gin up fear about methane leaks from natural gas (and probably another excuse to write a story with “fracking” in the headline). But those of us who actually pay attention to details, data, and the growing consensus within the scientific community know better.


Also weighing in was Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, who provided a nuanced discussion of the paper here. And the Environmental Defense Fund also had a write-up on the study, including in it a mention of the uncertainty of the estimates presented:

The authors calculated the uncertainty of their measurements, finding a 68 percent chance the leak rate is between 6.2 and 11.7 percent, and a 95 percent chance it is between 3.5 and 14 percent.

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Lawsuit seeks to protect ‘Hellbender’

If you’ve eaten at Hellbender Burritos up in Davis, W.Va., you may have wondered about the joint’s namesake. Here’s some new information from the Center for Biological Diversity:

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect eastern hellbenders under the Endangered Species Act. The hellbender is North America’s largest amphibian, growing more than 2 feet long. It is found in streams from New York to Mississippi and is threatened with extinction due to water pollution and dams. The Center petitioned for protection for the eastern hellbender in 2009, but the Service has failed to make a final decision on the petition. As fully aquatic salamanders, hellbenders never leave the water; and in highly polluted waters, they develop dramatic skin lesions.

Collette Adkins Giese, a lawyer with the center, said:

Hellbenders reflect the health of their streams, and they’re telling us clearly that we need to do a better job of protecting our rivers. Protecting the hellbender and its habitat under the Endangered Species Act will help protect water quality for all of us.

The center’s release continues:

It is unknown in how many states the large amphibian still survives. States in its range include New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

The eastern hellbender is one of two hellbender subspecies. The other, the Ozark hellbender, is found in streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri and was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2011.

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Last month, we reported about how West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was among the driving forces behind a compromise piece of legislation aimed at reworking the nation’s toxic chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. We said at the time (see also this blog post about Manchin laying low about his role in the matter):

Lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a potential compromise to reform the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is being credited with helping to forge the bipartisan deal.

The bill would, for the first time, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. Currently, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows the vast majority of chemicals to remain on the market without any evidence of their safety.

The EPA has tested only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the agency’s inventory.

The groundbreaking deal was reached between New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who, for years, has pushed a tough bill to modernize chemical protections, and Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has been trying to build support for a more modest, industry-backed proposal.

“Our agreement shows that protecting our health and environment does not have to impede our economic growth,” Manchin said in a prepared statement.

Well, it turns out that maybe the legislation isn’t as great as Sen. Manchin made it sound — at least not according to a growing coalition of public health advocacy organizations.  Yesterday, dozens of those groups sent a letter to lawmakers about the Chemical Safety Improvement Act that Sen. Manchin is co-sponsoring. The letter — signed by groups including the Breast Cancer Fund, Greenpeace, Environmental Working Group, Healthy Child, Healthy World and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, says:

We respect and appreciate the efforts to identify areas of bipartisan compromise and consensus on chemical safety legislation. However, we believe that the resulting Chemical Safety Improvement Act, S. 1009, has serious limitations and will fall far short of our shared goal of safeguarding human health from the risks posed by exposure to toxic chemicals. As a result, we will oppose this bill as it is currently written unless it is amended to address our key concerns.

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Sen. Manchin laying low on toxic chemical bill

Can we all agree that West Virginia’s junior Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, isn’t an especially shy guy? Given that, isn’t it a little strange that his office hasn’t really sought out attention for the senator’s key role in working out what could turn into a landmark agreement to reform the nation’s regulation of toxic chemicals?

We reported on this deal on the front page of today’s Gazette:

Lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a potential compromise to reform the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is being credited with helping to forge the bipartisan deal.

The bill would, for the first time, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. Currently, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows the vast majority of chemicals to remain on the market without any evidence of their safety.

The story outlined compliments from various sides for Sen. Manchin’s role in getting this done:

Over the past few months, industry officials had been aggressively lobbying Manchin, and environmental groups believed Manchin was close to signing on to Vitter’s bill, a move that would give that version a key Democratic vote.

Instead, Manchin urged Lautenberg and Vitter to try to work toward a bill they could both live with, according to accounts from citizen and industry organizations that closely followed the talks.

Manchin’s involvement “helped create a dynamic” that brought Lautenberg and Vitter together, said Cal Dooley, CEO of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.

“[Manchin] brought them both in and said, ‘I prefer the more conservative approach, but I’d like you guys to work this out,'” said Andy Igrejas, director of the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition, which has pushed for a strong TSCA bill.

But unlike Sen. Manchin’s work trying to find a compromise on firearm safety, the local media here in West Virginia didn’t really pick up on this story. One reason might be that Sen. Manchin didn’t really seek out any attention or news coverage.

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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)

It’s been a week now since the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas, that killed 14 people, injured 160 and leveled part of the town.

Am I the only one who is starting to wonder why we haven’t heard much of anything yet from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about its work so far to get to the bottom of what caused this disaster?

Remember that the CSB announced late last Wednesday night that it was deploying a team to the site, and at least one media report said the small agency had at least a dozen investigators on the scene.

So what you want about the Chemical Safety Board — and the fine recent reporting by the Center for Public Integrity points out some serious issues facing the agency — but the agency is generally one of the more transparent in the federal government. They’ve got a fairly aggressive press office, and it’s unusual for them to parachute into an accident site and not be pretty quickly having media availabilities to outline what they’re doing there and spell out general areas they think will be important going into a new investigation (see for example here and here).

So far, though, I don’t believe we’ve had one single update from the board’s investigation team in West, Texas.

Now, this disaster highlights quite a lot of issues that have been raised during the CSB’s previous investigations here in West Virginia following the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010. And some media reports are already focused on these issues. For example:

— How accurate and useful are the “risk management plans” that companies are supposed to file with regulators as part of the process of trying to reduce hazards and prepare for potential accidents? Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News reported very early on that West Fertilizer’s plan greatly downplayed the potential risks of its facility, and we know from an EPA Inspector General’s report released just last month about much-needed improvements in federal oversight of RMPs.

— Why was this facility last inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1985? Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post has offered some potential explanations for this. But we’ve seen this pattern before in West Virginia (see here, here and here), where OSHA ignores a potentially dangerous facility for years, until someone — or many someones — is hurt or killed. Even when some obscure OSHA policy or politically-motivated congressional rider doesn’t prohibit that agency from acting, OSHA is so underfunded and understaffed that at last count by the AFL-CIO, the agency can inspect all workplaces on average just once every 131 years.

— Firefighters in West, Texas, apparently knew of the presence of dangerous chemicals at the fertilizer facility, but it’s not yet clear how that information played into their response to the initial fire at the facility. In previous incidents here in West Virginia (see here, here and here), emergency response — though heroic — has not always been well-planned and sometimes leads to more risk or even, tragically, more deaths.

Since we hadn’t heard anything from the CSB, I sent their managing director, Daniel Horowitz, some questions about these issues, hoping to get a better idea of which of them would be a focus on the agency’s investigation at West Fertilizer. My request got an odd response. Here it is:

These are reasonable questions but at the current time both the site and the investigation are under the direction of the federal ATF and the state fire marshal. I am referring your questions to those agencies in the event they can provide information.

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