Sustained Outrage

CSB outlines dangers to public from gas well sites

Here’s the latest in today from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) today released a new study of explosions at oil and gas production sites across the U.S., identifying 26 incidents since 1983 that killed 44 members of the public and injured 25 others under the age of 25, and is calling for new public protection measures at the sites.

The report examined in detail three explosions that occurred at oil and gas production facilities in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, that killed and injured members of the public between October 2009 and April 2010.

Board investigators found:

… Children and young adults frequently socialize at oil sites in rural areas, unaware of the explosion hazards from storage tanks that contain flammable hydrocarbons like crude oil and natural gas condensate. The unintentional introduction of an ignition source (such as a match, lighter, cigarette, or static electricity) near tank hatches or vents can trigger an internal tank explosion, often launching the tank into the air and killing or injuring people nearby.

For local readers, none of the incidents the CSB documented occurred in West Virginia, but still:

The report identified regulatory gaps at the federal and state levels and called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state regulatory bodies to improve current safety and security measures at exploration and production sites such as warning signs, full fencing, locked gates, locks on tank hatches, and other physical barriers.

Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

After reviewing the work of our investigators I believe that these incidents were entirely preventable. Basic security measures and warning signs – as well as more safely designed storage tanks – will essentially prevent kids from being killed in tank explosions at these sites.

And here’s the board’s safety video on this issue:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified more weaknesses in EPA’s programs to protect our drinking water, this time concerning pharmaceuticals in water supplies.

In this new report, the GAO explained:

National and regional studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, EPA, and others have detected pharmaceuticals in source water, treated drinking water, and treated wastewater; but the full extent of occurrence is unknown. The concentrations detected for any one pharmaceutical were measured most frequently in parts per trillion. Research has not determined the human health effects of exposure to these concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water. However, federal research has demonstrated the potential impact to human health from exposure to some pharmaceuticals found in drinking water, such as antibiotics and those that interfere with the functioning and development of hormones in humans.

And the GAO found:

EPA faces challenges in obtaining sufficient occurrence and health effects data on pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in drinking water to support analyses and decisions to identify which, if any, pharmaceuticals should be regulated under SDWA. EPA is collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Geological Survey on research to help obtain such data but these efforts are largely informal. EPA officials said there is no formal mechanism, such as a long-term strategy or formal agreement, to manage and sustain these collaborative efforts. A recently expired interagency workgroup, which EPA co-chaired, initiated work on a research strategy to identify opportunities that will enhance collaborative federal efforts on pharmaceuticals in the environment, but its draft report did not contain key details about how the agencies will coordinate such collaborative efforts.

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CSB: Phosgene leak escaped DuPont plant

Folks who follow these things know that one of the first things that Kanawha Valley chemical companies like to say when they have a leak is something along these lines:  “No material left the plant” … It’s as if they want us to think they’ve built invisible protective bubbles around their fencelines.

Thanks to the folks at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, we have another concrete example of how these sorts of statements are mostly nonsense.

CSB officials used computer modeling and data from DuPont’s fenceline monitors to estimate the extent of the plume from the January 2010 phosgene leak that killed longtime plant worker Danny Fish.

Interestingly, CSB investigators didn’t really get into all of this in the press release the agency issued — so many members of the media probably missed this important aspect of the story.  And it wasn’t made all that clear in the body of the CSB’s report either. That section (see page 60 of the report) said:

Two of the three fence line analyzers recorded a maximum concentration of 0.15 and 0.27 ppm phosgene, indicating that phosgene concentrations had traveled offsite toward the Kanawha River. However, no member of the public reported phosgene exposure symptoms the day of the incident nor did the U.S. Coast Guard restrict river traffic or conduct air monitoring as it had a day prior as a result of the methyl chloride release.

Members of the media or the public had to read all the way into Appendix D (starting on page 124 of a 172-page report) to get the full story on what the CSB had learned about the extent of the potential phosgene plume from this leak:

The fence line monitors south and southwest of the phosgene shed recorded phosgene concentrations between 0 and 0.27 ppm, suggesting phosgene vapor may have traveled south of the DuPont Belle plant fence line toward the river. The ALOHA threat-zone overlay in Figure 19 (see above) displays a model of the worst-case release conditions indicating IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health) concentrations of phosgene could have been present on the Kanawha River shortly after the release and lower concentrations could have traveled across the river. There were no reports of odors or exposure symptoms from the community on the afternoon of the phosgene release incident.

In fact, the plume map buried on page 128 of the CSB report indicates that levels across the river from the DuPont plant reached 0.2 parts per million, which is equal to the ERPG-2 concentration — the level which no one should be exposed to for more than an hour if they want to avoid potentially irreversible health impacts.

Now, honestly, it took about three follow-up questions to get CSB investigators to make all this a little clearer to media members at yesterday’s press conference. I was a little baffled as to why the CSB — an agency whose reports are usually far easier for the public to understand than any other government department I cover — didn’t want to make this all more simple for the people of the Kanawha Valley.

But at least the CSB is doing the modeling, just as they did in their investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va.

As we reported in today’s Gazette, DuPont doesn’t like the CSB’s modeling, but he company hasn’t bothered to do its own computer study to see what sort of plume it believes might have occurred back in January 2010 …

More from the CSB’s DuPont press conference

I’m just back from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s press conference on its report on the three January 2010 incidents at the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle, W.Va.

We’ve got a basic news story online here, a follow-up blog post about DuPont rejecting technologies that might have made its phosgene unit much safer (also see the Center for Public Integrity story on this by the great Jim Morris), and we’ve also posted DuPont’s prepared statement responding to the CSB report.

Above, I’ve embedded a CSB video animation that depicts how agency investigators believe the phosgene leak that killed longtime DuPont worker Danny Fish happened.

In a CSB news release, board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said today:

DuPont became recognized across industry as a safety innovator and leader. We at the CSB were therefore quite surprised and alarmed to learn that DuPont had not just one but three accidents that occurred over a 33-hour period in January 2010.

And board member and former chairman John Bresland (who at one time worked for DuPont) said:

These kinds of findings would cause us great concern in any chemical plant – but particularly in DuPont with its historically strong work and safety culture. In light of this, I would hope that DuPont officials are examining the safety culture company-wide.

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Here’s a statement issued by DuPont in response to today’s report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

We understand that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has issued a draft of its investigation report on the January, 2010 incidents at the Belle site to seek public comment. We have cooperated fully with the CSB throughout its investigation. In June 2010, DuPont completed its own investigation of the incidents and provided those investigation reports to OSHA, the EPA, the CSB and other state and federal agencies. Since then, we have implemented all the recommendations from our investigations for the facilities that have returned to service. Examples of these steps already implemented at the Belle plant include:

— Performing an intensive operations safety review at each unit in addition to the normal safety processes and programs.

— Strengthening the process hazards review system to expand and improve employee participation.

— Improving our maintenance and inspection system for hoses.

— Identifying and eliminating settings in the computerized maintenance system that could prevent maintenance work orders from being timely generated.

— Initiating a new system for alarm management.

In addition, two of the processing units involved in the January 2010 incidents have been taken out of service over the past 18 months for business reasons. The Spent Acid Recovery (SAR) Unit has been permanently shut down and is being dismantled as part of a pre-existing business plan. The phosgene processing facility within the Small Lots Manufacturing (SLM) Unit has not operated since the January 2010 incidents. All phosgene has been removed from the plant.

The Belle plant regularly engages in overlapping processes and programs to identify any safety or environmental issue and correct it, using process hazard analyses, management of change, equipment reliability programs, multiple layers of internal auditing, and hazardous materials management programs. These programs did not work as they were designed and expected to work, resulting in the January 2010 incidents. Since the conclusion of our internal investigations we have been working to strengthen these systems to ensure we prevent similar incidents in the future.

Based on our initial review of the CSB report, it appears they have made a number of recommendations that are aligned with the recommendations from DuPont’s internal investigation reports. After we have had time for careful review of the draft report, we will provide comments to the CSB.

DuPont is committed to the long-term operation of the Belle plant. We are hiring new employees, making capital investments in the site, and continuing to be actively involved in the local community.

Safety is a core value at DuPont and is our most important priority. Our goal is zero — meaning we believe all incidents and injuries are preventable. We are fully committed to being a good neighbor and operating our facilities safely and in full compliance with all safety, health and environmental requirements.

Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

We’ve just posted on the Gazette’s website a story about the scathing report being released this morning by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about its investigation into the string of accidents at the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle in January 2010.

You can read the CSB’s draft report here, and we’ll have more on this story throughout the day and in tomorrow’s print edition.

Regular readers will recall that the most serious of the January 2010 incidents was the Jan. 23 leak of poisonous phosgene that claimed the life of longtime plant employee Danny Fish.

During its investigation, the CSB turned up some fascinating documents that indicate that DuPont officials declined to implement a much safer alternative for the phosgene facilities at the Belle plant.

The safest alternative — enclosing the phosgene plant in fully contained building with its own air scrubber — could have been done at an affordable cost — about $2 million, according to the documents the CSB uncovered.

But, DuPont officials dropped the idea out of concerns that the project would “set a precedent for all highly toxic material activities.”

The internal documents are included as an appendix to the CSB report. And it’s worth checking out this story from this morning’s Gazette, about the lack of progress on the CSB’s previous recommendation for creation of a local chemical plant accident prevention program.

It’s been 16 months since a phosgene leak at the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle, W.Va., claimed the life of longtime plant worker Danny Fish back in January 2010.

So where is the U.S. Chemical Safety Board report explaining to the public what went wrong at the Belle plant that day?

I keep wondering that, but I don’t get many answers from our friends at the Chemical Safety Board.

Months ago, I was repeatedly told that the board was planning a public meeting in early April to release its report here in the Kanawha Valley, so residents, workers and company officials would have a chance to discuss it with the board staff and board members.

Well, early April came and went. And now it’s almost June.

In the meantime, the board had deployed to other incidents in other places — a fatal fire at a calcium carbide plant in Louisville, Ky., a fatal fire at Hoeganaes Corporation in Gallatin, Tennessee, and an explosion at a fireworks storage facility in Hawaii. There’s no question that the CSB’s list of ongoing investigations is long and keeps growing.

So when will we — the public — get to see a report on DuPont’s fatal phosgene leak (not to mention the other string of dangerous accidents at the Belle facility)?

Well, that’s not clear. But we do know that DuPont has seen the report. So have the government agencies — such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — to whom the CSB makes recommendations in its report. That’s right — the report is done. It’s been done for a while, according to documents posted on the CSB website.

The holdup now is an internal dispute among board members about exactly how they will let the rest of us in on what their staff found when they investigated the Belle plant.

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There’s a new study out today from The Pew Center on the States that concludes:

West Virginia spent $1.44 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2010, yet the state cannot answer critical questions about what returns this investment is generating in the areas of jobs and commerce, mobility, access and environmental stewardship.

According to a press release from Pew:

The state leads the way in measuring transportation’s impact on the key goals of safety and infrastructure preservation. But overall, it trails behind other states in having the essential tools–goals, performance measures and data–needed to help decision makers choose cost-effective transportation funding and policy options.

The study is available online here, and they have a West Virginia Fact Sheet posted here. They also have an interactive map.

According to Pew:

West Virginia fares well in measuring its transportation system’s progress in advancing safety and infrastructure preservation. For instance, the state aims to resurface 8.3 percent of its paved highways every year so that the entire system will be revamped over a 12-year cycle. But with other goals, such as jobs and commerce, the state has room for improvement. For example, West Virginia does not have performance measures and data to assess transportation’s progress toward mobility and environmental stewardship. It has only one performance measure–transit ridership–for access. The state set a goal of boosting rural transit ridership by 1.5 percent each year, a target it met for a few years before ridership fell in 2010.

Robert Zahradnik, director of research, Pew Center on the States, said:

West Virginia lawmakers should make transportation policy and spending choices based on evidence about what works and what does not. Unless states have clear goals, performance measures and data to generate that information, it is very difficult for policy makers to prioritize transportation investments effectively, target scare resources and help foster economic growth.

AP: Decades-old toxic threat lifts from W.Va. town

In this Feb. 16, 2011 photo, the buildings and smokestacks of the 460-acre Bayer CropScience chemical complex are visible from a softball field on the campus of West Virginia State University in Institute, W.Va. (AP Photo)

Here’s a take on today’s news about Bayer from The Associated Press:

INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) — For the first time in 26 years, Barbara Oden can let go of the image that has haunted her — poisonous gas leaking from a Union Carbide tank and killing thousands of people in Bhopal, India, in the world’s deadliest industrial disaster.

On Friday, she and other residents of a tiny West Virginia town won what had seemed like a never-ending battle to get the same toxic chemical, methyl isocyanate, out of their back yard.

In a surprise move in U.S. District Court in Charleston, attorneys for Bayer CropScience announced they were dropping plans to resume production of the chemical, commonly called MIC, and would begin dismantling the unit.

That ends the key part of the latest lawsuit in a nearly three-decade battle. Claims for property damages and medical monitoring remain, and Judge Joseph Goodwin has scheduled a hearing Monday on the remaining issues.

But Bayer’s decision erases a threat that loomed over the people of Institute for a generation.

The company will no doubt replace MIC, which is used to make a pesticide, with some other chemical, but nothing could be as bad, said Oden, a retired biology professor at West Virginia State University who still lives next to the plant.

“Chemicals don’t have to kill,” she said.

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I’m just back from federal court, where Bayer CropScience lawyer Al Emch informed Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin that the company has decided not to resume production of the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant.

Here’s Bayer’s news release:

Bayer CropScience today announced that the company has decided not to restart the transitional production of methyl isocyanate (MIC) at its site in Institute, West Virginia. As a result, the company will move forward immediately with decommissioning of the reconfigured MIC and associated production units as well as the closure of Woodbine.

Bayer CropScience was planning to start the MIC unit and begin transitional production of the Temik® brand insecticide early this year, but uncertainty over delays has led the company to the conclusion that a restart of production can no longer be expected in time for the 2011 growing season.

The safety of the MIC plant, which was overhauled completely and technically modified during the past months, was confirmed again by a federal court-commissioned expert report on the plant’s safety, which was delivered to the court this week. However, against the background of the continuing uncertainty regarding the timing of resumption of production, the company needed to make a decision.

UPDATED: Here’s a link to the audio of a Bayer conference call with reporters that just ended —

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