Sustained Outrage

Nobody really counts chemical plant accidents

Plant Explosion Texas

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Over the weekend, we had this short report in the newspaper:

Two workers were injured and transported to a hospital after a nitric acid spill at Catalyst Refiners in Nitro on Saturday afternoon, according to emergency officials.

The workers’ conditions are unknown at this time. The incident occurred just before 3 p.m. at Catalyst Refiners on 1580 1st Ave. South in Nitro.

As company officials and emergency responders frequently do, dispatchers insisted, according to the Gazette-Mail report, that the incident “posed no public hazard.” Perhaps not, but the spill made all the more timely  an important story over the weekend from the Dallas Morning News  reporting the following:

Even the best national data on chemical accidents is wrong nine times out of 10.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many [chemical] accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, a nationally recognized expert on chemical safety who recently testified before a congressional hearing on West.

“This is just scandalous.”

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ProPublica: As Obama touts gas, EPA retreats

President Barack Obama speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. The president is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property, resorting to his executive powers to tackle climate change and sidestepping the partisan gridlock in Congress. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Last week, when President Obama unveiled his broad plan for trying to slow climate change, West Virginia political leaders acted as if coal was the only thing the president talked about. As we reported in the Gazette, the president also voiced very strong support for continuing to increase natural gas drilling:

West Virginia’s political leaders raced this week to attack President Obama’s climate change plan and its potential impacts on the already declining coal business, but they didn’t mention another key part of the administration’s plan: strong support for continued growth in natural gas drilling, especially in places like the Marcellus Shale region.

During his landmark speech Tuesday at Georgetown University, Obama praised shale-gas drilling as a cheaper, cleaner fuel that can power the nation and create thousands of new jobs.

“It’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future,” Obama said.

The White House’s 21-page climate plan adopts the natural gas industry’s line that gas is a “bridge fuel” that generates fewer greenhouse gases and is ripe for replacing coal in power plants and gasoline or diesel as vehicle fuel.

As we also explained:

Obama acknowledged that more needs to be done to make natural gas drilling safe for water supplies and surrounding communities. The president also noted the need to better control leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane from natural gas production, an issue that scientists say urgently needs more attention before the drilling boom advances much more. However, the president still cited it — along with renewable sources — as providing “clean energy.”

“Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions,” the president said in his speech Tuesday.

Obama’s strong push on natural gas didn’t sit well with everyone in West Virginia, where environmental groups say a new state drilling law is far too weak and questions persist about whether new gas-industry jobs are going to in-state residents or not.

“We look forward to a day when the administration sees fracked gas for what it is — a fossil fuel of the past and a threat to public health,” said Jim Kotcon, conservation chairman of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

And now, ProPublica has an important new piece headlined EPA’s Abandoned Wyoming Fracking Study One Retreat of Many:

When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.

In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, Wy. – the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.

The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.

Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten explains:

Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.

But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

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Report: Workplace deaths are preventable

This Thursday, April 18, 2013 aerial photo shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas.  There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people this week.   (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, file)

Despite getting far less media attention than the Boston Marathon bombing last week, the terrible explosion of a fertilizer facility in Texas has begun to prompt some strong reporting about the many gaps in our nation’s system to protect workers (not to mention folks who live near dangerous industries). For a few examples, check out here, here and here.

And now this morning, in advance of next week’s national Workers Memorial Day, we have the release of a report from the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, reminding us of this:

More than 4,600 workers were killed on the job in 2011 – the latest year for which we have complete data – spanning many ages, industries, and causes of death  …

The report, “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” released today, pairs government data with heart-breaking stories about worker fatalities to portray the need for worker health and safety reforms.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH, said:

Each worker killed is a tragic loss to the community of family, friends and co-workers – and the worst part is, these deaths were largely preventable. Simply by following proven safety practices and complying with OSHA standards, many of these more than 4,600 deaths could have been avoided. But as companies decry regulations and emphasize profits over safety, workers pay the ultimate price.

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013. (APMichael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

It was early this morning when the email message came over from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

A large investigation team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is deploying to the scene of a massive fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant located in West, Texas, north of Waco.

Local emergency officials have told the CSB of a large number of injuries and destroyed buildings in the town.

The investigative team will be led CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom and is scheduled to arrive in Texas Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, West Virginians have come to know the CSB well. Agency officials produced detailed investigative reports on 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.

But as we reported a few months ago, the CSB dropped its investigation of the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the AL Solutions plant up in New Cumberland, W.Va.:

As 2012 draws to a close, CSB officials are in the midst of their own probe of the April 2010 explosion and fire on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Among other ongoing cases, the CSB has launched a full investigation of the April fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., an incident that sent hundreds of area residents to hospitals. And like other government agencies, the CSB is facing the potential of serious budget and staffing cuts in coming years.

“It was in our minds a very serious and very tragic incident,” the board’s Horowitz said. “That’s why we sent a team out there. What has happened in our case as time unfolded, is just a plethora of competing priorities … all of which have huge pressures associated with them, and unfortunately for us, not a lot of resources to divvy up.”

And now, we have this important report from the Center for Public Integrity:

… Three years after Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon, both inquiries remain open – exemplars of a chemical board under attack for what critics call its sluggish investigative pace and short attention span. A former board member calls the agency “grossly mismanaged.”

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations – one more than five years old – are incomplete.

As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.

“It is unacceptable that after three long years, the CSB has failed to complete its investigation of the tragic Tesoro refinery accident,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a written statement to the Center. “The families of the seven victims and the Anacortes community deserve better, and the CSB must be held accountable for this ridiculous delay.”

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Which way should W.Va. go on clean vehicles?

Alternative fuel vehicles have been getting an unusual amount of attention in West Virginia lately.  Last month, the Gazette and other media gave a lot of attention to this story:

The Interstate 79 corridor will be dotted with four compressed natural gas filling stations by 2014, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced during a news conference Thursday.

The announcement took place near the Spring Street Foodland, the site of the planned Charleston station.

IGS Energy-CNG Services will build the four stations. The other three sites are near Jane Lew, Bridgeport and just across the Pennsylvania state line at Mount Morris.

State Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said that although IGS is an Ohio company, it chose to build the stations in West Virginia because state lawmakers were ready with legislation to make natural gas feasible.

T.J. Meadows, West Virginia business manager for IGS Energy-CNG Services, and a West Virginia native, said the stations in Charleston and Bridgeport should be open and operating by fall.

A few weeks later, West Virginia Public Broadcasting promoted natural gas vehicles with this story:

With technology for natural gas powered vehicles on the horizon, many consumers are sure to be excited about the possibility of lowered fueling costs and reduced emissions. However, there are a few bumps in the road in making these vehicles available for a mass market.

With fueling costs of natural gas vehicles roughly one-third of traditional unleaded gasoline fueled vehicles, motorists are sure to embrace the new technology. Chesapeake Energy spokesperson Phil Pfister explains how these vehicles have fared in other states.

“Right now in Oklahoma, motorists that are fueling up are fueling up for 99 cents a gallon equivalent, versus—we’re paying about $3.50 for gasoline here in West Virginia. In Louisiana motorists are fueling up for about $1.49 a gallon equivalent. So, there is a lot of cost benefit. Additionally, it produces a lot cleaner exhaust stream; less CO2, less carbon monoxide, less particulate matter.”

And today, the local media is giving pretty good play to this report from The Associated Press:

It’s not often that environmental organizations and the coal industry come down on the same side of a policy debate. But that’s happening in West Virginia, where both groups have concerns about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal to eliminate a state tax incentive for plug-in electric cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles.

The tax credit covers 35 percent of the cost of an alternative-fuel vehicle, up to $7,500 for cars and $25,000 for large trucks. The credit would remain in place for vehicles that run on natural gas, propane and butane, but would be phased out in 2017, rather than 2021 as scheduled.

And since last July, members of a task force appointed by Gov. Tomblin (a task force made up mostly of natural gas industry officials or advocates) have been working on plans for how the state could convert more of its fleet of vehicles to natural gas. The media have treated this all as a no-brainer, writing things like this without any attribution:

The benefits of natural gas as a fuel are clear: It’s cleaner, abundant and costs about half as much as gasoline.

It’s no wonder that a variety of local officials are strongly backing natural gas vehicles. They’re all eager to do whatever they can to help West Virginia cash in on what they believe is a bonanza of economic development related to natural gas drilling in the state’s Marcellus Shale region. What’s been less in evidence, though, is much discussion about whether the state’s current direction on vehicle fuels is one that experts on energy policy and climate change is one that makes sense.

Not everyone who follows policies in this arena is as optimistic about natural gas vehicles as West Virginia political leaders seem to be. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists makes this recommendation:

Natural gas can play a role in reducing global warming pollution, but using it for transportation fuel does not represent one of the best climate solutions. For example, a natural gas-powered Honda Civic delivers about a 15 percent reduction in global warming pollution compared with a conventional gasoline-powered Civic, but a gasoline-electric Civic hybrid costs less and delivers a 30 percent reduction in emissions.

While it can make sense to use natural gas for vehicles fueled in a central location, such as taxis or delivery vehicles, expanding natural gas use in passenger vehicles would require major investments in new fueling infrastructure that would become obsolete as cleaner technologies come to market. A better use for natural gas in the transportation sector would be as a resource to generate cleaner electricity for plug-in vehicles or hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

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AP: Raese built golf course without permits

Here’s the latest from Vicki Smith over at the AP:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Republican Senate candidate John Raese filled in wetlands and damaged more than 2 miles of streams when he rerouted them to create waterfalls on a private, 18-hole West Virginia golf course that federal regulators say he built without the required permits.

The years-long construction of Pikewood National Golf Club near Morgantown is “probably the biggest violation we’ve ever seen in this district,” Sheila Tunney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, told The Associated Press.

More than two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Raese, the club’s president, to develop a plan to mitigate the damage. Tunney says work on that plan is ongoing.

Raese, who’s challenging incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin, recently called Pikewood “the nicest golf course in the United States” and a local job creator. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The millionaire businessman campaigns routinely on a platform that includes abolishing several federal agencies, including the EPA, and the government regulations that he says squelch economic development.

EPA officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the violations but did provide the AP a copy of a six-page compliance order issued in March 2010. The last page says EPA “reserves the right to seek any remedy available under the law,” including pursuit of any civil or criminal charges it deems appropriate.

Tunney said the corps first learned about the 1,300-acre golf course, which sits on the Monongalia-Preston county border, from a farmer who complained he was no longer getting water from a local stream.

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Jobs vs. environment: Fostering false choices

Ferroalloys casting, Felman Production, WV USA

There was a fascinating new report out recently about media coverage of environmental and public health regulations, and how journalists are so quick to talk about how such rules kill jobs, often with little if any evidence to support such claims. The report, “Job Killers” in the News: Allegations without Verification” concluded:

— Media stories with the phrase ‘job killer’ spiked dramatically after Barack Obama was elected president, particularly after he took office. The number of stories with the phrase ‘job killer’ increased by 1,156 percent between the first three years of the George W. Bush administration and the first three years of the Obama administration.

— The majority of the sources of stories using the phrase ‘job killer’ were business spokespersons and Republican party officials.

— In 91.6 percent of the stories alleging that a government policy was or would be a ‘job killer,’ the media failed to cite any evidence for this claim or to quote an authoritative source with any evidence for this claim. With little or no fact checking of “job killer” claims, Americans have no way to know if there is any evidence for these claims.

Of course, this sort of “reporting” often doesn’t include specific use of the phrase “job killer,” but the results are the same. And we all know that West Virginia media outlets are partial to stories that would paint the Obama administration as a bunch of crazed environmentalists with no regard for jobs or the economic well-being of rural communities in our state.

We were reminded of this trend again here recently, when the Daily Mail published, “Plant steels itself against regulatory woes,” which warned readers:

As they get ready to celebrate 60 years of manufacturing, the current owners of the Felman Production steel alloy plant in Mason County wonder if federal regulations will keep them from staying open for 60 more.

The crux of the story is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new air pollution standards for these sort of metals plant, and the Daily Mail wants us to believe these rules might force the plant to close. But if you read the story closely, it’s really not clear that the company is claiming they would close. Nobody is quoted as saying that. The most the company seems to be saying is that a rule they see as too tough might stop them from expanding their Mason County operation:

Konrady said the company has invested nearly $80 million in the three-furnace plant since 2006 and is looking toward future investments.

“We’re considering maybe building another furnace,” he said. “The owners are willing to make a future investment because they see a future here with our company.

But there is concern the final regulations may be too stringent. That, he said, could dissuade the company’s investors from moving forward with the new furnace project.

“If it becomes too expensive to meet the new federal standards, the owners will likely take that investment elsewhere,” he said.

In fact, Felman officials seemed to have good things to say about EPA and their interactions with the agency:

Konrady said the company has had a good working relationship with the EPA. Company engineers have made several visits to agency headquarters in Research Park, N.C., to review data collected from Felman and Eramet.

Konrady said company managers are open to regulation; they just want to ensure the new standards aren’t too restrictive.

“We’ve been providing alternatives to manage visible emissions,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be environmentally responsible here. We’re saying, ‘Let’s look at all alternatives, and let’s use good science and data and come up with a good set of regulations.'”

But of course, that didn’t stop the Daily Mail from editorializing on this story, saying:

The United States faces this possibility because the EPA settled with the Sierra Club, which sued the agency to force it to act. Once again, an executive agency, not Congress, is designing industrial policy.

That should not be.

The EPA has delayed its decision on the regulations until September.

Here is hoping for reasonable regulations that trigger reinvestment, not disinvestment and joblessness.

Missing from the story, though, is any real detailed discussion of exactly what pollution the EPA rules are aimed at dealing with, what the costs of emissions reductions would be, and whether the potential health benefits of those reductions would outweigh the costs. The story couldn’t even get the right year for passage of the Clean Air Act Amendment that mandate these rules.

A quick Internet search would have turned up EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis for the rule, which reports:

For the ferroalloys proposal, the net benefits are $67 million to $170 million in 2015 at a 3% discount rate for the benefits and $59 million to $150 million in 2015 at a 7% discount rate for the benefits.

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Fracking update: What about the science?

There are two interesting stories out today that provide interesting — and somewhat divergent — takes on the science that underlies the ongoing debate over the natural gas drilling boom.

First, there’s an Associated Press story headlined, “Experts: Some fracking critics use bad science,” which reports:

In the debate over natural gas drilling, the companies are often the ones accused of twisting the facts. But scientists say opponents sometimes mislead the public, too.

Critics of fracking often raise alarms about groundwater pollution, air pollution, and cancer risks, and there are still many uncertainties. But some of the claims have little — or nothing— to back them.

But right off the bat, you’ve got to question the broad conclusions being outlined by AP reporter Kevin Begos. Why?  Because this is one of the three examples he uses to make  his point:

And concerns about air pollution from the industry often don’t acknowledge that natural gas is a far cleaner burning fuel than coal.

Throughout the rest of the story (all 1,183 words of it), Begos doesn’t delve at all into what may be the central air pollution issue — and the central scientific debate over air emissions — regarding the natural gas boom: Whether the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas, which all added up, are really that much better than those from coal. We’ve written about that issue many times before (see here, here, and here) and it’s one of the more lively debates going on around the “fracking” issue.

The AP story might have been better if Begos had made more clear a point that he barely touches on between taking shots at the claims of citizen activists:

… There are still many uncertainties … science is slow, and research into gas drilling’s many possible effects are in the early stages, and much more work remains to be done.

 The other story out there is from Bloomberg News, and it’s headlined, Frackers Fund University Research That Proves Their Case. Here’s the nut graph:

As the U.S. enjoys a natural-gas boom from a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, producers are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities that arrives at conclusions that counter concerns raised by critics.


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Why American workers keep dying on the job

United States Steel Corp.’s Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa. AP photo

Unfortunately, there is no lack of work available for journalists who think it’s important to expose all of the terrible ways in which American workers die on the job. This week brought us two incredible examples of the stories of our fellow citizens who die just because they got up in the morning and went to work.

First, the great Jim Morris at the Center for Public Integrity reports:

Early on the morning of Sept. 3, 2009, Nicholas Adrian Revetta left the Pittsburgh suburb of Pleasant Hills and drove 15 minutes to a job at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant, a soot-blackened industrial complex on the Monongahela River. He never returned home.

Stocky and stoic, Revetta was working that Thursday as a laborer for a U.S. Steel contractor at the same plant that employed his brother, for the same company that had employed his late father. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., gas leaking from a line in the plant’s Chemicals and Energy Division found an ignition source and exploded, propelling Revetta backward into a steel column and inflicting a fatal blow to his head. Thirty-two years old, he left behind a wife and two young children.

So what happened with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated? Morris tells us:

In the Revetta case, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — failed to issue even a minor citation to U.S. Steel, the world’s 12th-largest steelmaker and an economic leviathan in Western Pennsylvania. The company paid no fine, although current and former workers say that U.S. Steel’s contractors — including Revetta’s employer, Power Piping Co. — faced intense pressure to finish their work.

OSHA did look into Revetta’s death, as required by law. Michael Laughlin, a safety inspector from the agency’s Pittsburgh office, spent more than two months on the case, working tirelessly to find the cause of the explosion. Yet emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Laughlin’s requests for help went unanswered, and he was pulled off the investigation by a supervisor striving to meet inspection goals.

“My problem is at what point do we give up quality for quantity,” Laughlin wrote in an appeal to a higher-ranking OSHA official in Philadelphia in November 2009. “I need some guidance because I’m torn and my spirit is broken because of the need to complete this case to the best of my ability.”

The official advised Laughlin to “relax” and use the weekend to “go out and hit some [golf] balls!”

In the end, OSHA penalized only an insulation contractor that had been working in the area of the explosion. The contractor paid $10,763 in fines unrelated to the blast and was not implicated in Revetta’s death.

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Chesapeake faces criminal Clean Water Act probe

West Virginia media outlets are focusing in this morning on a report out of Oklahoma about Chesapeake Energy facing a criminal investigation of Clean Water Act violations at some of its operations here in West Virginia.

The Oklahoman reported today:

Chesapeake Energy Corp. is facing possible criminal charges as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates whether the oil and natural gas producer violated the Clean Water Act in West Virginia.

Chesapeake is cooperating with the investigation, which it disclosed this week in a regulatory filing. “We are working with the government to resolve potential violations at three sites in Marshall and Wetzel counties,” spokesman Michael D. Kehs said Thursday. “These actions occurred primarily in 2008 and 2009, and are related to road maintenance and pond construction,” he said. “Because an investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to offer further public comment at this time.”

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