Sustained Outrage

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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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.

India Bhopal Gas
Children born with congenital diseases caused by the exposure of their parents to the gas leakage in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, participate in a candlelight vigil to pay homage to the people killed in the tragedy, in Bhopal, India, Monday Dec. 2, 2013. The Bhopal industrial disaster killed about 4,000 people on the night of Dec. 3, 1984. The death toll over the next few years rose to 15,000, according to government estimates. A quarter century later, many of those who were exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. Placard in foreground reads: “Tribute”. (AP Photo/Rajeev Gupta)

Twenty-nine years ago today, thousands of people were killed by a toxic leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. As Kanawha Valley residents know, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience.

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.  Luckily, nothing of that size or scale has happened. Smaller leaks, fires and explosions over the years have claimed workers’ lives. 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.

Today, on the other side of the world, survivors and others are remembering what happened back in 1984. The Times of India has several stories marking the anniversary. One piece, headlined No grooms for Bhopal gas victim girls, reports:

Fatima Bi, resident of Barkheda was just six years old when the Union Carbide gas tragedy struck on the intervening midnight of December 2-3, 1984. Today she is 35 years-old and hates family members for even uttering the word “marriage” in her presence. Her mother and two brothers tried to find her a suitable match but every prospective groom refused to marry her because she is a gas tragedy victim.

“They think marrying a gas girl victim would mean spending the boy’s entire life’s earnings on her medical treatment,” explained Fatima’s mother, Feroza Bi. “They are also afraid that a gas victim girl would give birth to deformed and disabled children. When we failed to get a match for her from Bhopal, we tried the other districts Raisen, Sagar, Burhanpur and Jabalpur. My daughter is overweight and the grooms’ relatives thought that too was because she inhaled the poisonous gas as a child.”

According to Fatima argued the grooms’ relatives would invariably ask her if she had any health problems. “I told them that I had the usual stomach and back pains sometimes when I worked on the household chores. But it all came down to my being a gas victim. In the end, the groom would refuse marriage because he was not prepared to take the responsibility of a gas affected victim.” Unemployed and living with her mother, Fatima said she does not regret her single status. “Other gas victim girls in the neighbourhood who got married have been deserted by their husbands. At least I didn’t have to suffer that humiliation.”

Kausar Jehan (33) of Jehangirabad is another gas victim woman who could not be married. She stitches clothes and works night and day sowing embroidery work on sarees to make her ends meet. In Karond, Laxmi Bai (40) daughter of Tulsiram says she has never dared dream of a fairy-tale handsome prince after she was blinded in the gas tragedy at the age of 11. Lying in her cot, she said that no one marries a blind gas victim girl. The government gives her a pension of Rs 150 for being a handicapped victim.

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A ‘burst of activity’ on protecting workers?

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The website Daily Kos has an interesting piece out that’s headlined, Obama administration breaks through years of delay on new worker protections.  It starts out:

In the three months since Labor Secretary Thomas Perez was confirmed—but not only because of him—the Obama administration has moved forward on a series of new rules to protect workers’ safety and wages and promote hiring of veterans and disabled workers.

Here’s what they describe as a “bust of activity” to protect American workers:

The rules that have been instituted include guidelines for government contractors that seven percent of new hires should be disabled people and eight percent should be veterans and the inclusion of home care workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, entitling them to minimum wage and overtime protections starting in January 2015; a proposal to update silica dust regulations is in a public comment period.

Seriously? I was immediately reminded of the piece published in April 2010 about how then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was a “new sheriff” in town to protect workers across our country. Ultimately, though, the first Obama term was certainly a disappointment to worker safety advocates, as we’ve discussed before here, here, and here.

Even a cursory look at the White House Office of Management and Budget website reveals the list of worker safety reforms that remain stalled by this administration:  Protections for electrical transmission line workers, improved injury and illness reporting requirements, and a long list of coal-mine safety rules including reducing dust exposures that cause black lung disease, proximity detection equipment mandates to end pinning and crushing deaths, and toughened civil penalty regulations.

And then there are the rules that agencies themselves haven’t sent to the White House yet … Just look at OSHA’s regulatory agenda:  Regulations to control combustible dust,  limits on exposure to beryllium and a mandate for new injury and illness prevention programs, just to name a couple. Just read Dr. Celeste Monforton’s previous posts on the Pump Handle blog (here and here, for example) to understand how backed up crucial workplace protection rules are in the Obama administration.

Doesn’t seem a bit early to be declaring that there’s been a “breakthrough” on worker safety under President Obama’s latest new sheriff?

Chemical safety work frozen by federal shutdown

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This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

We’ve been writing in the Gazette and on my Coal Tattoo blog about the potential impacts of the federal government shutdown on coal-mine safety and health. Meanwhile, others have made clear the impacts on other types of industrial and public safety matters.  Take for example this story from the Dallas Morning News:

Federal efforts to improve chemical safety and investigate what went wrong in the deadly West fertilizer blast are stalled because of the partial government shutdown, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Tuesday.

Boxer, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate’s environment and public works committee, said that means deadlines set by President Barack Obama for Cabinet members and agency heads to review and overhaul regulations, safety practices, data-sharing and emergency response won’t be met.

The first deadline, for agencies to submit proposals for improvements, is Nov. 1.

The shutdown also is delaying the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the blast.

“That explosion is a prime example of the situation we’re in now, where the agencies that are supposed to come up with ways to make sure this never happens again just can’t meet,” she said at a news conference.

Momentum on improving chemical safety and security in wake of the West disaster is also at risk in the shutdown, Boxer said.

Obama issued his executive order on Aug. 1. The order imposed a series of deadlines, the first of which is a few weeks away. Multiple federal agencies had to submit preliminary proposals for improvements.

But those will “definitely be delayed,” Boxer said.

Another story in the Dallas paper examined the important issue of strengthening regulations on ammonium nitrate:

Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not allowed in Afghanistan. The country banned it three years ago because of its use in bombs against NATO soldiers.

The fertilizer’s explosive nature has led to similar prohibitions elsewhere, including China, Colombia, Germany, Ireland and the Philippines.

But in the United States, you can purchase it pure by the ton. Then you can store it in a wooden warehouse with no sprinkler system, a few hundred feet from a middle school.

That’s what happened in the Central Texas farming town of West, where an explosion destroyed nearby schools, houses and a nursing home. The blast killed 15 people, including 12 first responders. Several hundred more suffered injuries, some as severe as broken bones, ruptured organs and blindness.

For more than a decade, U.S. efforts to tighten controls over ammonium nitrate fertilizer have repeatedly failed, bogged down by bureaucratic gridlock and industry resistance. Regulations approved years ago remain unenforced and unfinished. Mere talk of safer substitutes has been blocked by those with profits at stake.

In fact, just 13 days before the West disaster, the only two remaining U.S. manufacturers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer pleaded for Washington’s help to preserve their $300 million annual market. Company executives bemoaned the “terrible toll” of regulation and the “pressure” of increased competition from nonexplosive substitutes.

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Contractor cited in FirstEnergy plant death

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Federal authorities have completed their investigation of the March death of a contract worker at FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station and has issued this set of citations.  Readers may recall (see the AP coverage picked up from the original State Journal reporting):

A contractor who died in an accident at FirstEnergy’s Harrison power station near Clarksburg has been identified as a 57-year-old employee of a Pittsburgh company. The State Journal said David Bergman, 57, was removing insulation Wednesday at the power station when he fell into ductwork. He was employed by Burnham Industrial Contractors.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged two violations of federal safety rules by Burnham Industrial:

— Insulators and sheetmetal workers were walking on approximate eight-inch-wide steel structural beams, referred to as stiffeners, and on metal planks that exposed them to accidentally falling onto and thru the top surface of the operational 2A Precipitator Inlet Duct. Employees wee exposed to hazards including severe metal lacerations, thermal burns, and an oxygen deficient atmosphere inside the duct as determined on March 21, 2013.

— A guardrail system or appropriate guarding was not used to protect Insulators and Sheetmetal workers from accidentally falling onto and through the top surface of the operational 2A Precipitator Inlet Duct. Employees were exposed to hazards including severe metal lacerations, thermal burns, and an oxygen deficient atmosphere inside the duct as determined on March 21, 2013.

OSHA proposed a fine of $7,000 for each of the citations, for a total of $14,000. A woman who answered the phone at Burnham’s office said the company had no comment.