Sustained Outrage

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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New study warns of MCHM toxicity

Coal Water Pollution

There’s a new study out this week that residents of the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region will want to know about.  It was published online Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology and is called Toxicity Assessment of 4-Methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol and Its Metabolites in Response to a Recent Chemical Spill in West Virginia, USA.

Here’s the abstract:

The large-scale chemical spill on January 9, 2014 from coal processing and cleaning storage tanks of Freedom Industries in Charleston affected the drinking water supply to 300,000 people in Charleston, West Virginia metropolitan, while the short-term and long-term health impacts remain largely unknown and need to be assessed and monitored. There is a lack of publically available toxicological information for the main contaminant 4-methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol (4-MCHM). Particularly, little is known about 4-MCHM metabolites and their toxicity. This study reports timely and original results of the mechanistic toxicity assessment of 4-MCHM and its metabolites via a newly developed quantitative toxicogenomics approach, employing proteomics analysis in yeast cells and transcriptional analysis in human cells. These results suggested that, although 4-MCHM is considered only moderately toxic based on the previous limited acute toxicity evaluation, 4-MCHM metabolites were likely more toxic than 4-MCHM in both yeast and human cells, with different toxicity profiles and potential mechanisms. In the yeast library, 4-MCHM mainly induced chemical stress related to transmembrane transport and transporter activity, while 4-MCHM metabolites of S9 mainly induced oxidative stress related to antioxidant activity and oxidoreductase activity. With human A549 cells, 4-MCHM mainly induced DNA damage-related biomarkers, which indicates that 4-MCHM is related to genotoxicity due to its DNA damage effect on human cells and therefore warrants further chronic carcinogenesis evaluation.

And here’s the conclusion:

… This study revealed different toxicity and potential mechanisms of 4-MCHM and its metabolites by S9 in yeast and human cells (A549). These results suggested that, although 4-MCHM is considered only moderately toxic based on previous limited acute toxicity evaluation, its metabolites may be more toxic than 4-MCHM and are more relevant to human exposure. Our study at the molecular level revealed some subcytotoxic molecular mechanisms such as DNA damage potential, which indicates that 4-MCHM is related to carcinogenesis and reproductive toxicity due to its DNA damage effect on human cells. Our results suggested that long-term medical monitoring should be considered for the population. It may also provide insights into potential long-term aquatic toxicity issues. The toxicogenomics-based molecular toxicity screening assay employed in this study provides timely information regarding the underlying mechanisms of toxic action of 4-MCHM and its metabolites, especially related to low-dose and chronic exposures, which makes it a useful tool for public health protection and health monitoring needs.

Obama rule includes oil-train secrecy

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)

 As another community — this one in North Dakota — deals with the aftermath of a crude oil train derailment and fire, it’s worth looking back at the recent announcement of the Obama administration’s new rules aimed at preventing these incidents.

As Curtis Tate at McClatchy explained, there are a lot of questions about the administration’s approach:

… It is far from the final word on efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic derailments, such as the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, nearly two years ago. And industry and environmental groups are bracing for a court fight over portions of the new regulations that they don’t like.

Most of the current tank car fleet that doesn’t meet the new requirements will be allowed to carry ethanol and some types of crude oil for eight more years. Environmental groups and some lawmakers objected Friday to the extended timeline.

It will be two years before the Energy and Transportation departments complete a study on the properties of crude oil and how they affect the way it reacts in derailments. While the rail industry supports the new tank car standard, it opposes the requirement for an electronic braking system on certain trains.

Also important, though, is another report from Curtis Tate, which detailed how the Obama administration — despite its claims to be transparent with the public and the press — has buried a major secrecy provision in this new rule.

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Citizens urge caution on Freedom Industries cleanup

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Mark Welch, chief restructuring officer of Freedom Industries (center), briefs Department of Environmental Protection officials on the site during an inspection on April 3. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

If you read the reports that Freedom Industries’ Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch files with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson, you would think that the remediation of the site of the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill is about wrapped up. But to hear the state Department of Environmental Protection tell the story, that’s far from true — DEP says it’s still waiting to see test results on soil and groundwater at the site, and that there’s a long road yet before the project completes work under the state’s “voluntary” remediation program.

We detailed the latest twist in this somewhat confusing story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail:

Freedom Industries officials are pressing West Virginia regulators for speedy approval of the company’s plan to complete a voluntary cleanup of the site of the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in the Kanawha Valley and surrounding communities.

… Welch told Pearson in his new report that the company had submitted a work plan earlier last week and that Freedom could complete the remediation contemplated within two weeks. Welch said the DEP had agreed to “expeditiously review and respond to the work plan.”

Welch said Freedom has dug up 600 cubic yards of contaminated soil and would, under its proposed work plan, dig up another 200 cubic yards of soil from areas where MCHM was stored or handled. He said the company would fill in with clean soil a water-runoff collection trench where sampling has continued to pick up the presence of MCHM. A new sediment-control pond would be built along the Elk River that could be used, at least temporarily, for continued sampling.

Completion of this work, Welch told the court, would mean “there is no risk of further MCHM leaching into the Elk River.”

This morning, the citizen group People Concerned about Chemical Safety, responded to that story, with a press release that urged DEP to “prevent cutting corners” on the Freedom cleanup project:

Recent tests, however, performed by U.S. Geological Survey, Virginia Tech and University of Memphis leave more questions on the toxicity of the spilled material.

Past studies assume the spilled material to have the same fate properties regardless of temperature. However, a recent report from Virginia Tech and University of Memphis indicates differing fate properties proving the previous hypothesis false. This indicates the potential for exposure concentrations to vary

The U.S. Geological Survey recently determined that a form of methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate (or MMCHC), was identified as another component of the spilled material and that it “likely contributed to the tap water odor complaints of Charleston residents.” No toxicological data is available for this chemical and the CDC has never established a screening level for this chemical.

What is clear from these recent findings is that the data does not yet exist to properly determine the risk at the Freedom cleanup site. In light of these findings, PCACS is urging DEP to ensure additional tests are performed to properly characterize site risk.

Among other things, People Concerned noted that DEP could seek to have money from criminal restitution payments from Freedom executives — four of whom have pleaded guilty in federal court — set aside for help with the site cleanup. Also, the group noted that DEP is accepting public comments on the Freedom cleanup via email at DEPVRPComments@wv.gov.

 

 

Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

India Bhopal

In this Dec. 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal, India.  (AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar, File)

Thirty years ago tonight, a leak of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

As many Kanawha Valley residents know well, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience. And just months after Bhopal, a Carbide leak in Institute sent 135 people to the hospital in an event that gave momentum to passage by Congress of the landmark chemical right-to-know and emergency planning law.

For many years, local residents lived in fear of a Bhopal-type disaster here. They pointed to the Institute   plant’s huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly chemical that leaked at Bhopal.  Pressure for Bayer to get rid of the MIC stockpile increased dramatically following an explosion and fire that killed two workers in August 2008. The Institute plant  came under new scrutiny after that, with a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that provided the most telling look to date about the dangers the facility presented. Then in March 2011, Bayer announced its landmark decision to never restart its MIC unit in Institute.

Coal Water PollutionBut other events remind us of the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface without proper regulation, enforcement and attention to safety. Locally, last January’s chemical spill by Freedom Industries was a case study in what can happen without prior planning or adequate government oversight (see here, here,here and here). State lawmakers responded by passing a very strong bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks and local drinking water systems, but the new Republican-controlled Legislature appears poised to dismantle that bill in the upcoming 2015 session, based largely on unfounded criticisms of the bill’s potential costs (see here and here).

Despite continued serious chemical plant accidents around the nation, the Obama administration’s response and its proposed reforms have been disappointing to safety advocates.  Just last week, in its latest regulatory agenda, Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration downgraded its efforts to write a new safety standard for combustible dust to a long-term action item, meaning it’s unlikely any rule will see the light of day during this administration. OSHA has delayed this rule for many years, and as we’ve written before, combustible accidents continue to claim the lives of workers, including three in a December 2010 explosion and fire in Hancock County, W.Va.

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Industry starts push for ‘voluntary’ safety measures

bayerblastt

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

It was interesting this week to start seeing some media coverage of the chemical industry’s efforts to begin pushing its voluntary “Responsible Care” program, timed oddly right as a new West Virginia commission is to take up, among other things, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommendation for a new local chemical accident prevention program.

For example, WCHS-TV did a story on a chemical industry meeting in which on-air personality Kennie Bass served on a panel that discussed the fallout from the January chemical spill at Freedom Industries:

The West Virginia Manufacturers Association and three national chemical industry trade groups teamed up to present the forum, which focused on government and media response to the freedom industries water disaster.

The panelists included West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Director Randy Huffman, Kanawha County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Dale Petry and Eyewitness News Reporter Kennie Bass, representing media who covered the water crisis.

Topics included how the local and state first responders dealt with the water shortage, how information was gathered and reported by journalists and what we have learned in case a similar disaster happens.

Dean Cordle, president and CEO of AC & S incorporated said it is part of the industries “responsible care.”

“The purpose of today’s event is to bring together the community leaders and industry and talk about safe practices that are currently being employed in the chemical industry,” Cordle said. “And to broaden our program called responsible care to include some of those smaller companies that can benefit from practices that we employ.”

I had heard of this event and checked in last week, but was told by the American Chemistry Council, one of the co-sponsors, that it was not open to the media.

Interestingly enough, Dean Cordle of AC&S Inc. showed up at a meeting of the Daily Mail’s editorial board that produced this story:

Chemical industry executives advocated for industry-driven safety practices during a workshop hosted by the West Virginia Manufacturing Association on Monday.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Center for Chemical Process Safety joined state agencies and community leaders in Charleston for a day of discussion and workshops aimed at encouraging companies to improve safety practices by joining industry safety cooperatives.

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freedom aerial

Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia

The pressure continues to build on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call a special session so West Virginia can walk back the landmark chemical tank safety and public drinking water law that miraculously made its way through the Legislature in the wake of January’s Freedom Industries spill and the Kanawha Valley water crisis that followed.

Yesterday, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley issued a joint statement urging Gov. Tomblin to call that special session so they can roll back the deadline for chemical tank owners to determine if their tanks are safe and report that information to the state Department of Environmental Protection.  Here’s what they had to say in that joint release:

miley_timothykessler_jeffreyWe urge Governor Tomblin to call a brief special session during the upcoming September interim meetings to modify the date of implementation for the inspection and certification of the Above Ground Storage Tank Act (SB373). Doing so during the interim meetings will not incur any additional cost to the taxpayers.

While we are extremely proud of the comprehensive regulatory legislation produced earlier this year to protect drinking water for our state citizens, it has become apparent that the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline for these inspections is unattainable. Extending that deadline will allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to put in place, with public input, agency rules to fairly and effectively govern the inspection and certification process.

Any continued delay in taking action on this matter only causes uncertainty within affected industries and the families that rely on them for employment.

Meanwhile, the DEP will move forward with creating an inventory and conducting a risk assessment of above ground storage tanks statewide.

The usual suspects among our state’s media outlets are right on top of this. Hoppy Kercheval is all over this, and the MetroNews coverage sticks pretty close to his talking points:

As of now, as many as 40,000 tanks in West Virginia must be registered with the state by Oct. 1 and certified inspections of those tanks have to be completed by Jan. 1.  The state Department of Environmental Protection has not yet finalized the inspection protocols and, DEP officials have said, it could be December before those guidelines are available.

After appearing at times to actually care about drinking water protections, the Daily Mail editorial page is back to its old self, and repeating the same misinformation West Virginians are getting from MetroNews:

But the biggest issue is the uncertainty facing storage tank operators as the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with enforcing the law, has yet to define the inspection parameters for storage tanks. Once it does, operators of the estimated 40,000 storage tanks affected by the law are unlikely to have time to complete their inspections by the Jan. 1 deadline.

It’s simply false to say that DEP has not yet issued “inspection protocols” or defined “the inspection parameters.” Officials at DEP, working very hard under tough deadlines and constant pressure from industry, published guidance for tank owners spelling out what should be examined in these inspections. It’s right here on the agency’s website. There’s a checklist for what the inspections should include and there are forms (see here and here) to use in certifying to DEP that you’ve done these inspections and your tanks are safe.

And DEP was very, very clear about how this is going to work for the initial inspections due Jan. 1 and for future annual inspections:

For the certification due on or before January 1, 2015, compliance with a nationally recognized tank standard such API or STI following the attached checklist shall be deemed compliance with the requirements. Subsequent Annual Certifications will be required to comply fully with legislative rules promulgated by the Secretary.

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AP: Traffic deaths up in drilling states

Drilling Traffic Deaths

In this photo made on Saturday, March 1, 2014, the graves of 7-year-old Nicholas Mazzei-Saum and his 8-year-old brother Alexander Mazzei-Saum, are decorated at the cemetery in Clarksburg, W. Va. In March of 2013, a truck carrying drilling water overturned onto a car their mother, Lucretia Mazzei, was driving, killing the two elementary school students. An analysis of traffic fatalities in the busiest new oil and gas-producing counties in the U.S. shows a sharp rise in deaths that experts say is related to the drilling boom. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

We’ve written before in this space about the traffic dangers parts of West Virginia have been experiencing as a result of the boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Now, reporters from The Associated Press have tried to quantify that issue. They report:

Booming production of oil and natural gas has exacted a little-known price on some of the nation’s roads, contributing to a spike in traffic fatalities in states where many streets and highways are choked with large trucks and heavy drilling equipment.

An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths and U.S. census data in six drilling states shows that in some places, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 — a period when most American roads have become much safer even as the population has grown.

“We are just so swamped,” said Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, Texas, where authorities have been overwhelmed by the surge in serious accidents.

The industry acknowledges the problem, and traffic agencies and oil companies say they are taking steps to improve safety. But no one imagines that the risks will be eliminated quickly or easily.

“I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” Villanueva said.

Specifically, the AP explains:

In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state. In one Texas drilling district, drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average.

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Rash of shootings again raises critical gun issues

FedEx Shooting

A FedEx employee, facing, is consoled by family or friends as other FedEx employees wait to meet their family at a near by business after they were evacuated from the Airport Road FedEx facility after an early morning shooting Tuesday April 29, 2014, in Kennesaw, Ga. A shooter opened fire at a FedEx center wounding at least six people before police swarmed the facility. The shooter was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. (AP Photo/Jason Getz)

This morning, we’re waiting again on word from a mass shooting incident, this one just outside of Atlanta.  Here in Charleston, the Daily Mail has a depressing map that pinpoints the locations of the rash of shootings in our community since the beginning of the year.

Of course, to hear many of our state and local elected officials talk, guns have nothing to do with shootings. And therefore, of course, stronger gun safety laws would not help reduce these sorts of crimes — let alone help avoid accidental shootings or reduce suicides in our state.

The facts and the science suggest otherwise, though … as we’ve reported many times before (see here, here, here and here). One thing that remains hard to understand is how this one fascinating study — showing that the much-touted uniform statewide guns laws that legislators like to push on cities like Charleston — may not in fact be the best approach for West Virginia.

WVTAP pulls some punches in review of CDC

freedom aerial

Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia

It’s probably fair to say that West Virginians who have become distrustful of the state and federal government’s handling of the continuing water crisis have been hopeful and optimistic about the work being conducted by the team at the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project.

One of the WVTAP leaders, University of South Alabama environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, built up a lot of credibility when he and some of his students drove to Charleston in January on their own dime to test home water supplies and help people properly flush their plumbing systems.  Dr. Whelton reached out to and welcomed input from various citizen groups, and most of his public comments have shown respect for residents — and a willingness to clearly define the unknowns in this situation, and not try to sugarcoat those unknowns just to quell public outrage.

The release a week ago of WVTAP’s results from its pilot home water testing effort was a groundbreaking example of how public pressure can force public officials — in this case Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — to do things they really don’t want to do  — in this case test the water residents were actually being exposed to, rather than just sample at the water plant and neighborhood hydrants. The question now, of course, is whether Gov. Tomblin will cough up the money needed for a larger study that could actually characterize the levels of MCHM that are still in our region’s drinking water.

But this week’s release of a preliminary report from the WVTAP Health Effects Panel didn’t go nearly as well — and raises some significant questions about the way this part of the WVTAP effort is being handled.

When we did our print story about the panel’s public meeting on Monday, we described the preliminary report as saying that the 1.0 part per million screening level set back in January by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was “too weak.”

But when I look back at that now, it’s more clear to me that while the report’s results made clear the CDC figure was way off — the CDC figure is 1,000 parts per billion, and WVTAP’s is 120 ppb —  the WVTAP preliminary report never really came out and said so. In fact, whoever is writing WVTAP’s press releases went to great efforts to make it look like the panel was what the CDC did was just fine. For example, the press release opined:

The panel concluded that the CDC used traditional methods and reasonable assumptions to develop their screening levels.

It was a statement like that which allowed West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling to say in her own press release that the WVTAP work was “clearly an affirmation that our water is safe and the CDC’s calculation at the time of the incident was appropriate.”

The problem with the WVTAP press release and Secretary Bowling’s comment is that they simply aren’t supported by the facts as they were laid out by the WVTAP Health Effects Panel. For one thing, the WVTAP panel decided that the appropriate assumption was that the most exposed population was formula-fed infants, not an older child weighing 10 kilograms. This is a big difference. And it’s an assumption that the CDC initially made that the WVTAP team decided was inappropriate.

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