Sustained Outrage

Well, it didn’t take long for Sen. Joe Manchin to start walking back the comments that — despite their lack of detail or definitiveness — led much of the media to declare earlier this week that Sen. Manchin, a longtime NRA member and gun control opponent, had reversed himself in the wake of the massacre of 20 schoolkids last Friday in Connecticut.

This morning on the statewide radio show “Talkline“, Manchin made himself clear in an interview with host Hoppy Kercheval:

I’m not supporting a ban on anything … I’m a gun owner. I intend to keep my guns, the same as most west Virginians and everyone I know will do the same.

You can listen to the entire interview over on the West Virginia MetroNews website, and here are five key points to remember about this episode:

1. As he often does, Sen. Manchin used this issue as an opportunity to bash Washington, and to paint himself as a “common sense” leader whose efforts are blocked by constant partisan bickering:

In a climate that I’m in right now for the last 2 years in Washington, I’ve watched something I’ve never seen, where the climate is guilt by association. That’s elevated itself to guilty by conversation. We can’t even have an open dialogue. In Washington, you can’t even sit down and talk and bring all of the parties to the table.

Maybe so. But the biggest stink raised when Sen. Manchin suggested a national conversation about gun safety was from a West Virginia-based group that calls itself the West Virginia Citizens Defense League. Calling Sen. Manchin “Senator Elmer Fudd,” the group’s leader announced plans for a protest on Saturday — just a week and a day after the slaughter in Newtown, Conn., — to criticize the senator’s statements. A story about this protest, written by the MetroNews hunting and fishing correspondent, is currently the top viewed story on the MetroNews website. Keith Morgan, president of this organization, told MetroNews:

I’ve been saying since 2004 Manchin is ragingly anti-gun. He’s managed to hide that view, but during his tenure as governor, he managed to insure no pro-gun bills of any substance made it out of the legislature.

No pro-gun bills of any substance made it out of the Legislature? How about West Virginia’s version of the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which then-Gov. Manchin signed into law, or the state’s gun carry permit reciprocity law? According to its website, the West Virginia Citizens Defense League won’t be satisfied until lawmakers repeal the ban on carrying weapons inside the state Capitol building.

2. Sen. Manchin was adamant that among his top concerns is ensuring that the gun lobby — in the form of the National Rifle Association — have “a seat at the table” for any discussions of the nation’s policy response to the Newtown slaughter:

I’ve been in contact the last three days with the NRA … we’ve been talking back and forth and back and forth … We can’t have an open dialogue with meaningful input unless the NRA is at the table.  These are my friends, they are good people. They are in pain the same as every American … and I’m not going to let anyone be villainized.

But the NRA doesn’t need Sen. Manchin’s help to get a seat at the table. According to the Sunlight Foundation:

The NRA has spent 73 times what the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has spent on lobbying in the 112th Congress ($4.4 million to $60,000, through the second quarter of 2012), and 3,199 times what the Brady Campaign spent on the 2012 election ($18.6 million to $5,816). (One caveat on the data is that the NRA itself does a very poor job of accurately reporting its spending, and we must rely on its self-reports.)

3. Sen. Manchin repeatedly talked about how he wants “everything on the table” and that “everything needs to be looked at.” But he also made it clear he’s currently not in favor of an assault weapons ban, that he’s  not going into that part of the discussion with an open mind, and that he’s waiting to see what the NRA is willing to go along with:

I can’t say yes or no to any of the things … I want the NRA to tell me why we have any weapon you might want. Is there any grounds or any changes that they might want to look at?

4. Sen. Manchin made what seemed like an odd comparison between a gun massacre and coal-mining disasters:

In 2006, we had two horrible mine tragedies back to back Sago and Aracoma. And you know what, we stopped mining for one day to put the emphasis on mine safety. We didn’t quit mining.

What Sen. Manchin didn’t say is that the 14 deaths combined in mine disasters at Sago and Aracoma were followed by five more deaths at Kentucky Darby — and then the following year by 9 deaths at Crandall Canyon and then in 2010 by 29 deaths at Upper Big Branch. And he failed to mention that legislative efforts both here in West Virginia and in Congress following the 2006 disasters focused on coal-mine rescue after a disaster, not preventing disasters from happening in the first place. A more accurate analogy between Newtown and mine disasters might be to examine how most gun murders don’t occur in a mass slaughter or major disaster, by one by one, a trend that I noted before it isn’t clear Sen. Manchin has noticed.

5. Sen.Manchin ranted a bit about how the first thing some lawmakers or others want to do following a mass shooting is start banning guns, suggesting that there’s some cultural/political thing in Washington — perhaps especially during the current administration — that simply doesn’t like guns and wants to disarm America. Sen. Manchin’s friends at the NRA have tried to argue that President Obama was out to take everyone’s guns away, but a more fact-based analysis shows the administration has not exactly moved very far in that direction:

So far, however, the only legislation the president has signed since he took office in 2008 has expanded gun laws, allowing loaded guns in national parks and unloaded weapons stored in luggage on Amtrak trains.

Mourners wait outside before the funeral service of Victoria Soto at Lordship Community Church, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Stratford, Conn.  Soto was killed when a gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Dec. 14,  and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is certainly getting a lot of media attention for what has been depicted as close to an about-face on gun safety laws, announced in the wake of the slaughter of 20 6- and 7-year-old kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Sen. Manchin’s statement that the nation needs to revisit limits on firearms was all over the news (see here, here and here, just for example).

In an editorial this morning, the Charleston Gazette praised Sen. Manchin:

Surprisingly, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — a longtime supporter of the right to bear arms — called for gun reform Monday morning. On the “Morning Joe” television show, he said it’s “time to move beyond rhetoric” about guns. He implied that he may vote to restore the ban on military-style assault weapons of the sort used in the Connecticut massacre.

“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena who goes out with an assault rifle,” Manchin said. “I don’t know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting.”

The former West Virginia governor said the Connecticut massacre of school tots has changed America’s mood.

“Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered,” he said. “It’s never happened in America that I can recall, seeing this carnage.” He added that law-abiding gun owners and hunters “understand this has changed where we go from here.”

Bravo. We’re proud of Manchin. We hope this reform spirit snowballs, and America finally attempts to protect people from the world’s worst level of gun murders.

But what remains unclear is exactly what sort of new gun safety measures Sen. Manchin would support, let alone push for in the Senate.  There are plenty of measures already pending, proposed by a variety of members of Congress. This helpful Congressional Research Service report provides an overview of those bills. None of them have Sen. Manchin’s name on them as a co-sponsor.

In fact, Sen. Manchin has actually put his name mostly on pro-gun measures backed by the National Rifle Association, a group that gets huge amounts of its funding not from the hunters whose rights Sen. Manchin proclaims to defend — but from the companies that make and sell firearms (see here and here).

For example, while Sen. Manchin believes that states should have the absolute right to regulate their own coal industries, he doesn’t want states to be able to set their own limits on guns, instead backing NRA-pushed legislation to force states to recognize gun permits issued by other states. Sen. Manchin is also co-sponsoring legislation to block the U.S. Department of Justice from tracking and cataloguing the purchases of multiple rifles and shotguns.

Sen. Manchin has been talking quite a bit this week about assault weapons:

Assault rifles were designed for the military, multiple-round clips.  I never had more than three rounds in my gun. I don’t know any people who go hunting with assault rifles with 30 rounds in their guns.

Media coverage yesterday and today focused on whether Sen. Manchin would support legislation that California Democrat Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce next year to ban assault weapons. If Sen. Manchin were truly concerned about assault weapons, he could have already signed on to S. 32, legislation that would ban large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.

It’s worth noting here that, while Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said yesterday that it’s “unacceptable” that the assault weapons ban hasn’t been renewed, Sen. Rockefeller also did not choose to co-sponsor S. 32 regarding large-capacity clips. Back in 2004, Sen. Rockefeller did vote to add continuation of the assault weapons ban to a separate bill, a gun lobby-based measure to protect weapons makers from lawsuits. Once the amendment was added, the overall bill was defeated in the Senate that March. That year, there were at least four bills introduced to continue the assault weapons ban, and I don’t see Sen. Rockefeller’s name listed as a sponsor for any of them. Unlike Sen. Manchin, though, Sen. Rockefeller is being perfectly clear that he wants to again ban assault weapons, saying in a Monday statement:

We need to pass a bill that will again prohibit such weapons.



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Flames burn from a gas line explosion across Interstate 77 near Sissonville, W.Va., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. At least five homes went up in flames Tuesday afternoon and a badly damaged section of Interstate 77 was shut down in both directions near Sissonville after a natural gas explosion triggered an hour-long inferno that officials say spanned about a quarter-mile. (AP Photo/Joe Long)

As the week ends, and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board officials continue to collect evidence in their effort to figure out what happened on Tuesday out in Sissonville, some key issues have already begun to emerge about the huge NiSource natural gas pipeline explosion and fire that could have easily turned into a massive disaster.

During a briefing last evening, NTSB investigators revealed part of what will undoubtedly become a central focus on their probe into the incident. As my colleague Travis Crum reported from board member Robert Sumwalt’s briefing:

It appears the pipe was about 70 percent thinner than it should have been to sustain pressure of 921 pounds per square inch measured at the time, he said.

An area along the bottom of the pipe, running about 6 feet long, was measured at less than one-tenth of an inch thick, he said. This thinning indicates that some segments along the pipe wall were about 30 percent thinner than required.

“There are many things that can cause pipe wall thickness to deteriorate and that is exactly what we will be looking at . . . ,” Sumwalt said. “What caused this pipe wall to become deteriorated? What caused it and what finally led to the actual rupture and explosion?”

You can watch that briefing for yourself here:

So far, the NTSB has declined to provide the information it has gathered about when this particular piece of 20-inch-diameter pipeline was made and installed, or its preliminary information about recent examinations of the pipeline by either NiSource or government inspectors. But as investigators move forward, they will be looking not only at this particular pipeline, but also at the entire system NiSource is supposed to have in place for “integrity management” of its thousands of miles of pipelines.

One local television station has hyped its report alleging recent safety violations on “that very pipeline” that ruptured and exploded. But a closer look at the records involved suggests that some of the violations highlighted in that report actually involved a 30-inch-diameter section of the NiSource pipeline network that is “upstream” or west of the Lanham compressor station, where the company’s “SM-80” pipeline scaled down to 20 inches. On the other hand, other local media have dismissed incidents involving leaks — and allegedly not reporting those leaks — as not “directly related to the structural integrity of pipes.” That ignores the possibility that leaks are a warning of something more serious that’s wrong (and the idea that leaks in and of themselves aren’t good things), and also wrongly downplays questions that have already emerged about NiSource’s ability to respond to an incident like this one.

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Sissonville blast highlights pipeline safety concerns

In this photo from West Virginia State Police, a fireball from a gas explosion erupts across Interstate 77 on Tuesday afternoon. At least five homes were burned.

It’s good news that the state was able to get Interstate 77 open by this morning, but it’s sobering to think about how big of a tragedy yesterday’s huge natural gas pipeline explosion in Sissonville, W.Va., could have been. And the incident only goes to highlight growing concerns nationwide — especially in light of the shale-gas drilling boom — about the safety of the giant web of pipelines that crisscross West Virginia and the nation.

We had a quick overview on this in today’s Gazette, reporting:

Nearly 15,000 miles of natural gas pipelines are spread across West Virginia, enough to stretch from Charleston to Morgantown and back 50 times.

Such pipelines are considered by many experts as the best way to transport fuel, much safer than railroads or tanker trucks.

But serious dangers remain, as West Virginians were reminded Tuesday with scenes of a wall of fire above Interstate 77 from the huge gas-line explosion in Sissonville.

And despite numerous efforts at reform, recent investigations and audit reports show that many gaps remain in the oversight of the nearly 2.5 million miles of pipelines that crisscross the United States.

Nationwide, concerns about pipeline safety have grown, amid a boom in natural gas drilling in several states and in the wake of a string of serious accidents, including explosions in San Bruno, Calif., and Allentown, Pa., that killed a combined 13 people in 2010 and 2011.

“While many stakeholders agree that federal pipeline safety programs have been on the right track, the spate of recent pipeline incidents suggests there continues to be significant room for improvement,” the Congressional Research Service concluded earlier this year.

You can read that Congressional Research Service report for yourself online here, and might also want to check out a U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this year.   The National Transportation Safety Board, which has launched an investigation of yesterday’s near-disaster, includes improvements in pipeline safety among its “most wanted list” of transportation system reforms:

The first key to enhancing pipeline safety is to improve oversight of the industry. Many of these accidents occurred because the pipeline operator’s safety program was insufficient to identify potential problems. With hazardous materials coursing through pipelines, it is vital that pipeline operators be routinely evaluated according to effective performance-based standards. These standards should address the adequacy of an operator’s integrity management and inspection protocols. Federal and state oversight agencies should work together to identify deficiencies in a pipeline operator’s safety program and ensure that those deficiencies are corrected. Oversight also means testing involved employees for drugs and alcohol when an accident occurs.

When there is a problem, timely response to shut down pipelines is critical. In both the Marshall and San Bruno investigations, we identified a delay in the operator’s understanding of the nature of the rupture and leak and therefore a delay in activating an appropriate response. Pipelines delivering products like natural gas into residential areas must have automatic excess flow valves that terminate the flow of product upon reaching a certain threshold. On the industrial side, remote shutoff valves serve the same purpose, though these could be manual or automatic. With such valves installed, companies would have the ability to stop the flow and isolate a rupture sooner, minimizing both the potential damage and the potential for an explosion.

Emergency response in the event of a leak is also critical. Pipeline operators can help ensure adequate emergency response by providing local jurisdictions and residents key information on pipelines in their areas. When a rupture occurs, operators should notify 911 emergency call centers as part of the standard response. Pipeline operators should also review their internal emergency response procedures and conduct periodic drills. Preparing for a robust emergency response will translate into faster and better response, less damage, and fewer injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An important new study from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health raises questions about potential public health impacts of the natural gas drilling boom in West Virginia and across the country. Here’s what the news release from the school says:

In a new study, researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health have shown that air pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing or fracking may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites.

“Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural gas development that has focused largely on water exposures to hydraulic fracturing,” said Lisa McKenzie, Ph.D., MPH, lead author of the study and research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health.

There are media reports out about the study in the Denver Post and on the website of Colorado Energy News.

According to the news release:

The report, based on three years of monitoring, found a number of potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in the air near the wells including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. Benzene has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a known carcinogen. Other chemicals included heptane, octane and diethylbenzene but information on their toxicity is limited.

The report, which looked at those living about a half-mile from the wells, comes in response to the rapid expansion of natural gas development in rural Garfield County, in western Colorado.

Typically, wells are developed in stages that include drilling followed by hydraulic fracturing , the high powered injection of water and chemicals into the drilled area to release the gas. After that, there is flowback or the return of fracking and geologic fluids, hydrocarbons and natural gas to the surface. The gas is then collected and sold.

Garfield County asked the Colorado School of Public Health to assess the potential health impacts of these wells on the community of Battlement Mesa with a population of about 5,000.

The study is due out soon in the journal Science of the Total Environment, and here’s the abstract:

Residents living ≤ ½ mile from wells are at greater risk for health effects from NGD than are residents living > ½ mile from wells. Subchronic exposures to air pollutants during well completion activities present the greatest potential for health effects.   The subchronic non-cancer hazard index (HI) of 5 for residents ≤ ½ mile from wells was driven primarily by exposure to trimethylbenzenes, xylenes, and aliphatic hydrocarbons.  Chronic HIs were 1 and 0.4. for residents ≤ ½ mile from wells and > ½ mile from wells, respectively.  Cumulative cancer risks were 10 in a million and 6 in a million for residents living  ≤ ½ mile and > ½ mile from wells, respectively, with benzene as the major contributor to the risk.

Keep in mind that the new natural gas drilling law championed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin allows drilling in West Virginia within 625 feet of occupied residences, well within the 1/2-mile (2640 feet) distance cited in the study as the area where residents would face greater health risks.

Why doesn’t W.Va. require CO alarms in hotels?

Emergency vehicles are parked in front of the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in South Charleston, W.V., Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012 . One guest was found dead and at least four others were sickened, apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning. A natural gas heating unit on a pool at the hotel caused a carbon monoxide leak Tuesday, fire officials said. (AP Photo/The Charleston Gazette,Kenny Kemp)

In the wake of the preventable death of construction worker William J. Moran, 44, of Rhode Island, yesterday in a carbon monoxide leak at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites out on Corridor G, the Daily Mail reports this morning that South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens wants his city to begin requiring all hotels in their jurisdiction to install life-saving CO alarms.

The bigger question, though, is why Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the West Virginia Legislature don’t just pass a simple law that mandates all hotels in our state install these life-saving devices.

Nationally, smoke alarms have been required in hotels since 1990. But that statute does not mandate carbon monoxide detectors or alarms.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 25 states have laws that mandate carbon monoxide detectors in residential buildings.  In West Virginia, such a statute was passed in 1998, after lobbying from 5th graders whose teacher nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning (subscription required). But a look at the NCSL’s list indicates far fewer states acting to require CO units in hotels — Michigan, New Jersey and Vermont list hotels specifically.

In one widely quoted article from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (I saw it in this New York Times piece and forwarded it to the Gazette’s Lori Kersey, who quoted it in today’s paper), Dr. Lindell K. Weaver of the University of Utah explained the importance of the issue:

Between 1989 and 2004, 68 incidents of CO poisoning occurring at hotels, motels, and resorts were identified, resulting in 772 accidentally poisoned: 711 guests, 41 employees or owners, and 20 rescue personnel. Of those poisoned, 27 died.

Interestingly, Dr. Weaver noted:

Poisoning has occurred at hotels of all classes, including those described as “luxury” hotels.

Dr. Weaver wrote that Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Minnesota have also required carbon monoxide detectors in hotels. But in a survey of more than 100 chain hotel properties, Weaver found that only 11 percent had installed the devices. Dr. Weaver concluded:

Despite evidence of efficacy, CO alarms have not been installed widely by the lodging industry, even at properties where guests and employees have been injured by CO.

Hotel fires are highly publicized, whereas CO poisoning is less dramatic. Therefore, the impetus for national legislation mandating CO alarms in guest rooms is lessobvious. Nevertheless, a single incident can result in multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries. Guests at hotels, motels, and resorts can be protected from CO poisoning by installing a CO alarm in every guest room, like the installation of smoke alarms.

I looked around for a position paper from the hotel industry on this issue, and found one on the website of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Here’s what it said:

The safety of its guests is the highest priority of the lodging industry. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, practically odorless, and tasteless gas. It has multiple industrial uses. Trace amounts of it occur naturally and are part of the atmosphere. Nevertheless, in high enough concentrations, it can be deadly and the risks of exposure to abnormal levels of CO are well known and well publicized. Although there are no federal rules on CO detection, nor is AH&LA empowered to set standards and policies, we urge our members to continue their CO monitoring and prevention policies.

Remembering the Little General disaster at Ghent

U.S. CSB photo

We ran a story at the top of the front page on Sunday about the aftermath of the propane explosion at the Little General Store in Ghent, W.Va. Four people died five years ago today in that disaster. As we explained:

On Jan. 30, 2007, propane gas at the Little General Store was suddenly released through a liquid withdrawal valve during a changeover between two tanks. Two propane technicians from Appalachian Heating, a firefighter and an emergency medical technician were among those killed when the explosion leveled the store.

Killed in the accident were Glenn R. Bennett, 44, of Appalachian Heating; Frederick Allen Burroughs, 51, of Cool Ridge, a Raleigh County building inspector and firefighter; Craig Lawrence Dorsey, 24, of MacArthur, a volunteer firefighter and EMT; and Jeffrey Lee Treadway, 21, of Beckley.

Six others were injured, but board officials said Friday the tragedy could have been even worse, given that the store had not been evacuated when the blast occurred. One of the injured, 74-year-old Donnie Ray Caldwell of Coal City, died in 2010.

CSB investigators concluded that the tanks involved were improperly located less than 10 feet from the store, a problem that propane company employees did not correct despite dozens of inspections. Board investigators also said that propane technicians were not properly trained to spot problems with the tank’s valves, and that local emergency responders had not been taught how to properly handle a propane accident.

In a statement issued Friday, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board had mostly good words for the way West Virginia officials and other responded to board recommendations for reform after the explosion. But the CSB’s original statement also noted one “disappointment”:

The Board was compelled to vote as “Unacceptable” action not taken by the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services. We urged the agency to require annual hazardous materials response refresher training for all emergency medical personnel in West Virginia. To date, training occurs only once every two years. The CSB believes recurrent annual training is critical for responders who must deal with hazardous materials emergencies such as with propane.

After the statement was issued, through, officials from the Office of Emergency Medical Services contacted the CSB to say that they had only the day before sent a letter saying they were rethinking the situation and planned to comply with the board’s recommendation. CSB spokesman Daniel Horowitz told me:

The letter did not arrive as of Friday. It was the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services who is making the change to their training requirements for annual hazmat training for EMTs. The staffer said it was put in the mail Thursday and I should receive it sometime this week.

I’ve reached out to the Office of Emergency Medical Services and its parent agency, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, but I’ve gotten no response so far.

It’s worth going back today, though, and revisiting this disaster by watching the CSB’s video animation recreating what investigators believe happened:



Long story of Monsanto and dioxin continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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