Sustained Outrage

Obama’s ‘timid’ legacy on chemical safety

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Plant Explosion Texas

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co.  on April 17, 2013 night killed 15 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said:

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

After 40 years, EPA to write spill prevention rule

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

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

You can read the legal settlement here.

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

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

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

Pam Nixon, spokeswoman for PCACS, said:

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

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

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

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The chemical spill: Where things stand

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

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

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

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

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Horowitz seeks return to Chemical Safety Board job

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

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

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

Importantly, Lise’s story notes:

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

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

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

Lise’s story said:

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

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Senate confirms new CSB chair, member

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

Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

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

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

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

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

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

More oil train data – but not for the public

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Train Derailment

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014.   (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

We talked yesterday about the continuing concerns local residents have over crude-oil train traffic through the Kanawha Valley, and about the latest word from the Federal Railroad Administration on disclosure by railroads to local officials important data about their shipments of this potentially dangerous cargo.

Among other things, we pointed out that the FRA made it clear that railroads like CSX are indeed supposed to continue filing crude-oil shipment disclosures with state emergency response commissions.  But as Curtis Tate at McClatchy reported:

Of the states on the CSX crude oil network that McClatchy sought information from, only Virginia reported receiving an update in the year between June 2014 and June 2015, and that was a week after a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in February near Mount Carbon, W.Va.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, said the railroad continues to be “in full compliance” with the emergency order. He added that the railroad recently sent new notifications to the affected states, “regardless of whether there was any material change in the number of trains transported.”

When we first checked in with the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management about this yesterday, spokesman T.D. Lively told us that the State Emergency Response Commission had not received any updated material from CSX since an initial notification back in May 2014.

After hearing that from the state, we contacted CSX, sending an email to Rob Doolittle, the same spokesman quoted in Curtis Tate’s story. Initially, Doolittle told us:

We sent updates earlier this month to all states where CSX operates. I’m double-checking to see if there’s any information about the status of the report to West Virginia that is relevant.

Not too long after that, we heard back from Lively with an update from the state:

The SERC just received a call from CSX saying that we should be receiving additional information from them regarding shipments via mail in the next few days.

And then, after that, we got this note from CSX’s Rob Doolittle:

Following your query we checked with the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and confirmed that they had not received the report we mailed earlier this month. We have made arrangements for the report to be delivered tomorrow.

It’s worth noting, though, that regardless of what CSX sends to the state, the public isn’t likely to learn much from it. Lively says state officials are sticking by their position that most of what CSX provides is exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act:

This does not change our position on the release of information marked confidential or proprietary by the railroad carrier. The information is made available to appropriate first responders in an unredacted form currently and will continue to be so. As more information becomes available we will release it to first responders.

Oil Train Rules

In this Feb. 17, 2015 file photo, crew members walk near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va.   (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

Five months after the huge crude oil train derailment and fire out in Mount Carbon, W.Va., citizens are still concerned about what could have — and what still could — happen as these rail shipments through communities around the country continue. As Matt Murphy reported for the newly consolidated Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Only about 10 residents attended an information session at the Glen Ferris Inn regarding the ongoing remediation efforts surrounding February’s CSX oil train derailment in Mount Carbon.

However, the residents who did attend expressed concern about oil trains continuing to pass through the area in addition to worries over existing oil remnants.

CSX officials made no formal presentation during the meeting. Instead, residents and members of the public were invited to ask questions of railroad representatives at tables set up along the perimeter of the inn’s meeting room.

One Boomer resident, Kay Slayton, said she had concerns over exposure to benzene and other petroleum-related chemicals following the spill, as well as oil remnants in the area.

Slayton’s home is directly across the Kanawha River from the derailment. She and her husband, who were home at the time, witnessed the derailment and subsequent fires occur and evacuated to a nearby elementary school where she works.

“It was a very scary sight,” she said. “I saw something coming down the hill and it was on fire.”

At the same time, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an important notice today, as Curtis Tate reported for McClatchy:

The U.S. Department of Transportation warned railroads that they must continue to notify states of large crude oil shipments after several states reported not getting updated information for as long as a year.

The department imposed the requirement in May 2014 following a series of fiery oil train derailments, and it was designed to help state and local emergency officials assess their risk and training needs.

In a press release, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said:

Transparency is a critical piece of the federal government’s comprehensive approach to safety.  DOT is committed to making certain that states and local officials have the information they need to prepare for and respond to incidents involving hazardous materials, including crude oil.  The Emergency Order that requires these notifications still stands, and we expect railroads to fully comply.

Curtis Tate explained:

In spite of increased public concern about the derailments, railroads have opposed the public release of the oil train information by numerous states, and two companies sued Maryland last July to prevent the state from releasing the oil train data to McClatchy.

The rail industry fought to have the requirement dropped, and it appeared that they got their wish three months ago in the department’s new oil train rule.

But facing backlash from lawmakers, firefighters and some states, the department announced it would continue to enforce the notification requirement indefinitely and take new steps make it permanent.

There have been six major oil train derailments in North America this year, the most recent last week near Culbertson, Mont. While that derailment only resulted in a spill, others in Ontario, West Virginia, Illinois and North Dakota involved fires, explosions and evacuations.

Some readers may recall that West Virginia officials — after initially appearing to be willing to rethink their initial secrecy on this issue — refused a Freedom of Information Act request for data they were given about CSX’s crude oil shipments in West Virginia.

 

Judge presses for deal on chemical spill records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The latest on the government’s MCHM studies

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

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

There’s more:

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

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Latest DuPont citation mirrors Belle violation

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

The inspection results from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration are in regarding the terrible poison gas leak that killed four workers at DuPont Co.’s plant in LaPorte, Texas, last November.  Here’s the bottom line from the OSHA press release:

Four workers killed by a lethal gas in November 2014 would be alive today had their employer, DuPont, taken steps to protect them, a U.S. Department of Labor investigation found.

The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration today cited DuPont for 11 safety violations and identified scores of safety upgrades the company must undertake to prevent future accidents at its Lannate/API manufacturing building in La Porte. The company employs 313 workers who manufacture crop protection materials and chemicals there.

“Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.”

OSHA continued:

The fatal incident occurred as one worker was overwhelmed when methyl mercaptan gas was unexpectedly released when she opened a drain on a methyl mercaptan vent line. Two co-workers who came to her aid were also overcome. None of the three wore protective respirators. A fourth co-worker — the brother of one of the fallen men — attempted a rescue, but was unsuccessful. All four people died in the building.

Methyl mercaptan is a colorless gas with a strong odor. It is used in pesticides, jet fuels and plastics. At dangerous levels of exposure, the gas depresses the central nervous system and affects the respiratory center, producing death by respiratory paralysis.

Among the citations issued by federal inspectors was one for a “repeat violation” for allegedly “not training employees on using the building’s ventilation system and other safety procedures, such as how to respond if the fans stopped working.” OSHA noted, without further explanation:

In July 2010, DuPont was cited for a similar violation.

Kanawha Valley residents may remember that similar violation. It was issued to DuPont’s Belle plant following a series of incidents in January 2010 that left one worker dead.

In the Belle incident, the OSHA citation in question stated:

Small Lots Manufacturing (SLM) Unit, Phosgene Shed: Employees working in the SLM Unit were not trained to recognize that leaving liquid phosgene in a non-vented flexible transfer hose for an extended period of time could result in the rupture of the flexible hose due to the thermal expansion of the liquid phosgene as determined on January 25, 2010.

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