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 data details worker deaths

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There’s a new database and map tool out today that provides what may be the best list available of workers who died on the job in these United States last year.

You can view the data here and check out the map here.  A press release distributed by a coalition of worker safety advocates explained:

The U.S. Worker Fatality Database identifies more than 1,780 workplace fatalities in 2014, with additional data still being collected. Based on previous data, this is likely to represent over one-third of the total cases of workplace deaths from traumatic events for that year.  

The final toll for 2013, released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 4,585 deaths on the job from sudden traumatic events. An additional 50,000 workers are expected to die each year from long-term exposure to toxic chemicals and other occupational hazards.

After action: Learning from W.Va.’s water crisis

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In a lot of ways, the “After Action Review” made public last week by the Tomblin administration was an amazing document.  Click here to read the whole thing or here to download the main body summary of the findings.

Writing in our news story about the report, I called it the state’s “most frank assessment” to date of government’s performance in responding to the Freedom Industries chemical leak and the water crisis that followed. Among the admissions:

— The state “struggled at times” to effectively communicate information to the public through the news media. News conferences occurred with little notice, and messages were “lost amid confusing or ambiguous statements.” The report noted that “scientific information ought to be conveyed in an easily understandable manner.”

Earl Ray Tomblin— Government officials “should have visited individuals and businesses in the affected area to help restore calm and exhibit empathy.”

— Recalling an industry-only “stakeholders” meeting that was exposed by The Charleston Gazette, the report said that, “In preparing the initial draft of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, state officials should have solicited feedback from all affected parties, including environmentalists, instead of only vetting proposals with business and industry representatives.”

Of course, some of these things are about communications and public relations, and others are about process.  In some other ways, the report was not quite as honest or at least it appeared to be still trying to put the best possible spin on this. For example, as I wrote in our news story:

… The report said that “with the abundance of chemical and manufacturing facilities in the Kanawha Valley,” many of them near “critical waterways,” a more efficient way of managing required disclosure forms about toxic chemical inventories at those operations should be implemented.

The report asserts that, while the state had established a “comprehensive statutory framework” in 1984 to regulate underground chemical storage tanks, aboveground tanks were not regulated “under an applicable federal or state permit” and tanks like the MCHM tanks at Freedom Industries “escaped government oversight.”

The report said that the new storage tank law “will help address these shortcomings, will increase public safety significantly, and will help protect the environment.”

The truth is, state and local officials were given information that showed Freedom was storing these chemicals just upstream from the region’s drinking water intake. But nobody — including members of the local media, like me — bothered to look at or use this information in any meaningful way (see here and here). So while it’s certainly true that officials need “a more efficient way of managing” chemical inventory disclosures, it’s also quite an understatement about the failure to use available tools to prevent or respond to a disaster.

And the truth is that the Freedom site wasn’t “not regulated”, but — as DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has explained previously — they were “underregulated.”  And in fact, federal authorities, in charging Freedom officials with Clean Water Act crimes, have said that the company’s failure to comply with a DEP-issued permit was a “proximate cause” of the MCHM spill. It was DEP’s job to enforce that permit, to make sure Freedom complied.

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Will lawmakers get serious about gas industry safety?

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Fire crews from Marshall County battle a gas well fire in  Moundsville, WV, Monday June 7, 2010. The explosion and resulting fire sent seven people to area hospitals including three workers who were flown to a Pittbsurgh burn center. (AP Photo/The News-Register, Kef Howard)

A committee of West Virginia lawmakers spent some time over the last two days talking about a growing, but not very well publicized, issue facing the state as the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom continues. We’ve written about it before:

As West Virginia’s natural gas industry booms, more workers are paying the price as deaths on the job are increasing, according to new federal government data.

Thirteen workers in the state’s oil and gas industry died during the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to the data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the five workers who died in the industry during the previous five-year period, between 2004 and 2008, according to the bureau.

The increase in worker deaths came as natural gas production in West Virginia — fueled by the rush to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves — also more than doubled, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

During an initial meeting on Tuesday, James Martin, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas, told the Joint Committee and Labor and Worker Safety Issues that, despite a mandate in the 2011 National Gas Horizontal Well Control Act for operators to submit safety plans to DEP, state officials leave worker safety mostly up to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Our focus is on the environmental side of it, so that’s what we look to. Obviously, there is overlap. The same issue could result in both safety and environmental concerns. But our focus is on the environment.

Charleston lawyer Tammy Bowles-Raines, testifying for the West Virginia Association for Justice, told the committee that injuries and deaths from being struck by moving equipment, explosions, and transportation accidents are on the rise in the state’s Marcellus boom:

Worker safety in the oil and gas industry is a growing concern.

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Industry starts push for ‘voluntary’ safety measures

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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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Chemical Safety Board in turmoil – again

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The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is under fire from all sides — again — and it appears that inner turmoil is making it even harder for this small government agency to do its terribly important job.

Yesterday, a House of Representatives committee released a report and heard testimony that detailed problems at the CSB. Headlines were using words like “disarray” to describe the situation.  The Hill described the basic situation this way:

 House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called Thursday for the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to resign, an opinion shared by a bipartisan group of members on the oversight panel.

Moure FinalThe call came during a hearing on allegations of dysfunctional management by Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and accusations that he and his staff sought to silence whistleblowers and others who disagreed with him.

“You really need to ask whether or not in your last year, you can really undo the damage of your first five,” Issa said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he had “serious questions about your fitness to hold your job.”

“It is clear that there are serious management problems that need to be addressed,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Ga.), the panel’s top Democrat.

At the center of the hearing were allegations from CSB staff that an employee of the Office of Special Counsel had told top CSB officials the identifies of whistleblowers in 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General, which also has authority over the CSB, investigated the issue, but agency staff did not provide requested materials.

The basic allegations are covered in this report, written by the staff of the Republican-controlled committee. There’s also additional testimony from Moure-Eraso here and from board member Mark Griffon here.  Former board member Beth Rosenberg, who resigned in late May over problems inside the agency, testified about what the “chilled atmosphere” at the CSB and about what she said was a “lack of accountability” and a “lack of transparency” at the board. Testimony described a toxic atmosphere among board members and top agency staff. Rosenberg put it this way:

There are no opportunities for staff and board members to discuss issues openly. Those whose opinions differed from senior leadership or the chair are marginalized and vilified. At the CSB, disagreement is seen as disloyalty. Criticism is not welcome and staff fear retaliation.

Testimony and the GOP staff report raise serious issues — things like the potential outing of agency whistle-blowers, major votes and decisions all being made in secret instead of in public meetings, and stonewalling an Inspector General’s investigation.  Issa, the Republican committee chairman, said:

Rather than addressing experienced investigators’ concerns about agency mismanagement, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board leadership has stifled internal debate and retaliated against agency whistleblowers.  Mismanagement under the current CSB leadership has created a hostile work environment, distracting the Board from fulfilling its core mission to investigate industrial accidents and issue incident safety reports in a timely manner.  Real reform is needed at the CSB to restore collegiality, staff morale, and the integrity of the agency.

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Obama OSHA again delays combustible dust rule

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We’ve written many times (see here, here and here) about the dangers of combustible dust, and the need for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to move forward with an industry-wide rule to prevent needless deaths and injuries — like the one that claimed three lives at AL Solutions in New Cumberland, W.Va., back in December 2010.

But it probably should come as no surprise that the latest Obama administration regulatory agenda — issued late last week, just before a holiday weekend — shows absolutely no progress on this rulemaking.

The last we heard, in December 2013, OSHA still hasn’t convened a promised panel to consider the rule’s potential impacts on small businesses.  And OSHA doesn’t plan to do so until at least April 2014. But in its new regulatory agenda, the administration now says it won’t even convene that small business panel until December 2014.

As I wrote the last time the regulatory agenda came out six months ago …

… The combustible dust rule — a proposal the U.S. Chemical Safety Board listed as its first-ever “most wanted” safety reform by OSHA — continues to go nowhere.

WVTAP pulls some punches in review of CDC

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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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CSB proposes refinery safety overhaul

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In a draft report released to the public today, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is urging an overhaul of the way refineries are regulated in California, calling on officials to replace the current patchwork of rules with a more rigorous, performance-based regulatory regime. The proposal, similar to those successfully adopted in the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia, is known as the “safety case” system and could serve as a model for U.S.-wide safety reforms.

The draft report is the second part of three in the CSB’s investigation of the August 2012 process fire in the crude unit at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. That fire endangered 19 workers and sent more than 15,000 residents to the hospital for medical attention. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

After exhaustively analyzing the facts, the CSB investigation team found many ways that major refinery accidents like the Chevron fire could be made less likely by improving regulations.

Refinery safety rules need to focus on driving down risk to the lowest practicable level, rather than completing required paperwork. Companies, workers, and communities will all benefit from a rigorous system like the safety case.

I believe California could serve as a model for the nation by adopting this system. We applaud the work of the Governor’s Interagency Task Force for their proactive approach and highly positive recommendations to protect worker and public safety in California. I have great confidence that California will embrace the recommendations in our draft report and carry them forward to implement policy change.

The CSB’s press release explains:

As detailed in the CSB draft report, the safety case regime requires companies to demonstrate to refinery industry regulators – through a written “safety case report” – how major hazards are to be controlled and risks reduced to “as low as reasonably practicable,” or ALARP. The CSB report notes that the safety case is more than a written document; rather, it represents a fundamental change by shifting the responsibility for continuous reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the company.

To ensure that a facility’s safety goals and programs are accomplished, a safety case report generated by the company is rigorously reviewed, audited, and enforced by highly trained regulatory inspectors, whose technical training and experience are on par with the personnel employed by the companies they oversee, the draft report says.

The draft report comes about four months after the CSB released an “interim report” that found Chevron  repeatedly failed over a ten-year period to apply inherently safer design principles and upgrade piping in its crude oil processing unit, which was extremely corroded and ultimately ruptured on August 6, 2012.

The interim report identified missed opportunities on the part of Chevron to apply inherently safer piping design through the use of more corrosion-resistant metal alloys. The interim report also found a failure by Chevron to identify and evaluate damage mechanism hazards, which if acted upon, would likely have identified the possibility of a catastrophic sulfidation corrosion-related piping failure. There are currently no federal or state regulatory requirements to apply these important preventative measures. The investigation team concluded that enhanced regulatory oversight with greater worker involvement and public participation are needed to improve petroleum refinery safety.

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Obama OSHA again stalls combustible dust rule

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Barack Obama

Back in late October, some in the media were jumping to praise a “burst of activity” by the Obama administration’s Labor Department to protect American workers. I wonder if those some folks have taken a look at the department’s latest semi-annual regulatory agenda, made public last week by the White House.

In particular, it’s worth looking at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s entry regarding its long-stalled rule to protect workers from the serious dangers of combustible dust.

OSHA reveals in this entry that it still hasn’t convened a promised panel to consider the rule’s potential impacts on small businesses.  And OSHA doesn’t plan to do so until at least April 2014.  The last we heard from OSHA, they were going to convene that panel in November.  Of course, way back in the fall of 2010, OSHA had said it would organize this panel by April 2011 … and it’s still never done so.

So the combustible dust rule — a proposal the U.S. Chemical Safety Board listed as its first-ever “most wanted” safety reform by OSHA — continues to go nowhere.