Sustained Outrage

Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

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?

tom-perez-obama

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

Plant Explosion Texas

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

harrisonpower

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.

 

Report: Budget cuts threaten worker safety

California Jobs

There’s a new report out today — in advance of Labor Day — that explains how the looming budget battles in Congress threaten the agencies that are supposed to protect the health and safety of American workers. The report notes, among other things, that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is significantly underfunded and does not have the resources  it needs to fulfill its mission. More budget cuts would set OSHA back even more.

Today’s press release from the Center for Effective Government explains:

While OSHA has not suffered the same level of severe funding cuts that have plagued other programs, even before the sequester hit, its resources had not kept pace with the growth of the economy. Between 1981 and 2011, the number of workers increased from 73.4 million to 129.4 million, and the number of workplaces doubled from 4.5 million to 9 million. But the current number of OSHA inspectors is lower than it was in 1981. Each inspector is now responsible for overseeing the health and safety of 62,000 workers and 4,300 workplaces.

Among other things, the group says that another round of budget cuts would:

— Further curtail the training of new inspectors and reduce their ability to keep up with emerging hazards. This would come at a time when OSHA is projected to lose a significant percentage of its existing workforce as safety and health inspectors and whistleblower investigators reach retire¬ment age. Already in FY 2013, training and outreach were hit by cuts.

— Constrain resources for investigations into retaliation against workers who report health and safety violations to OSHA. Federal OSHA and its state counterparts have too few resources to regularly inspect all worksites and rely on worker complaints to identify the most dangerous establishments. Charges of re¬taliation are increasing, and OSHA no longer completes its investigations within the statutory deadline of 90 days. In 2012, each OSHA investigator was handling about 26 cases, and each took up to 286 days to close. This problem would likely get worse with additional funding cuts.

— Further cut resources to state enforcement and compliance programs, which federal OSHA has traditionally funded at about 50 percent of total costs. As this funding shrinks and state governments also cut their own health and safety funds, it’s likely that the country will see reduced enforcement and smaller reductions in injuries, illnesses, and fatalities on the job.

Nick Schwellenbach, Senior Fiscal Policy Analyst at the Center for Effective Government and the author of the report, said:

OSHA exists to ensure that we’re all safe on the job. While OSHA is trying to mitigate the immediate impacts of budget cuts, Washington’s continuing obsession with deficits will cause OSHA to be less effective in protecting workers. OSHA performs a valuable service in safeguarding Americans at work. However, the agency is stretched too thin. If we’re going to prevent debilitating accidents and tragic deaths on the job, Congress and the president need to commit to giving OSHA the resources to protect our health and safety.

The report is available online here.

U.S. oil and gas industry deaths on the rise

drill

We’ve had several stories recently (see here and here) about deaths of workers in West Virginia’s booming Marcellus Shale natural gas business, so it’s worth checking out the new report issued today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found:

Fatal work injuries in the private mining sector rose in 2012, led by an increase in fatal injuries to workers in oil and gas extraction industries. Fatal work injuries in oil and gas extraction industries rose 23 percent to 138 in 2012, reaching a new high for the series.

The report continued:

Fatal work injuries in the private mining sector increased 14 percent to 177 in 2012 from 155 in 2011—the highest level since 2007. The number of fatal work injury cases in oil and gas extraction industries rose to 138 in 2012 from 112 in 2011; the 2012 figure represents a series high. Fatal work injuries in coal mining increased slightly, and fatal work injuries in support activities for mining increased 9 percent.

Plant Explosion

Fireman battle a fire at AL Solutions after an explosion rocked the plant Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in New Cumberland, W.Va. Three workers were killed and one person was injured. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

We’ve written over and over here about the dangers of combustible dust and the inaction by the Obama administration on a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule-making on the issue (see here, here, here and here).

Well, now the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has moved again to to encourage — to practically shame, really — OSHA into taking some sort of action. Here’s today’s announcement from a CSB meeting:

In a public meeting held here today, members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board declared the response by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to seven longstanding recommendations – on combustible dust, fuel gas and the Process Safety Management standard – to be “unacceptable.”

And the kicker:

The Board also voted to make the adoption of a combustible dust standard for general industry to be the first priority in the CSB’s recently established “Most Wanted Safety Improvements” program, which will result in stepped-up advocacy for the measure. 

There’s more information here from today’s CSB meeting.

Moure FinalCSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

Over the years, the CSB has made a number of recommendations to OSHA in the aftermath of tragic accidents that have killed dozens of workers, injured hundreds more, and caused millions of dollars in property damage.  We are particularly concerned with the lack of action on a much-needed combustible dust standard. Yet insufficient progress has been made, and many years have passed in some cases, without a definitive OSHA response. Today’s vote by the board  designating OSHA’s responses to be “open-unacceptable” means that we strongly believe these recommended regulatory changes are still needed to save lives and prevent accidents in the chemical industry. At the same time, we voted to keep the recommendations’ status as “open,” as we take heart in comments made by OSHA today that they may consider action in the future.

Some readers may recall that combustible dust was blamed by the CSB for a December 2010 fire and explosion that killed three workers at the AL Solutions facility up in New Cumberland, W.Va.  As we’ve written, the CSB has yet to issue a report on that incident. While the board is far from perfect, board members are trying to focus public and regulatory attention on the important issue regarding the dangers of combustible dust.

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OSHA continues delay of combustible dust rule

We’ve written many times before about the continued delays and inaction by the Obama administration regarding the well-known dangers of combustible dust in the workplace (see here, here, here and here).

And this week, with publication — finally — of the administration’s spring regulatory agenda, we see again very little evidence of any progress by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration on this issue.

Now, remember that OSHA has not had a timeline for actually publishing a proposed rule, let alone a final version. The last we heard, in the agency’s December regulatory agenda, was that OSHA hoped to convene a “Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act” review of the issue in October 2013. But now, the new regulatory agenda shows that even that review has been delayed a month, with a starting date now listed as November 2013.

Site of Putnam explosion never inspected by OSHA

Emergency crews responded to several explosions at the Airgas plant in Black Betsy Monday afternoon. Two men were taken to Cabell Huntington Hospital with first- and second-degree burns. Gazette photo by Chip Ellis.

Today’s Gazette story by Kate White about the Monday explosion that injured two workers at the Airgas facility in Putnam County included this bit of news:

Members of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration arrived at the scene.

As best I can tell, this is the first time anyone from OSHA has ever visited this particular facility. OSHA data includes no record of the agency ever inspecting the site. This morning, OSHA Charleston area office Director Prentice Cline told me:

I can’t find any history on that facility.

At first, it looked like perhaps this facility was one of those that gets a free ride under federal rules that exempt certain small employers from OSHA inspections. But this afternoon, through OSHA’s public affairs office, Cline explained that wasn’t the case:

My understanding is that this site has 12 employees, so the number of employees would not be an issue. They could be targeted under the site specific targeting list, however we have no history with them and my understanding is their injury rate is not high enough to place them on that list. Otherwise, to my knowledge, the facility would not be targeted under the other current national, regional, or local emphasis programs. So, an unprogrammed event such as complaint, referral, fatality, catastrophe would be the only reason for us to be at the site. I have no evidence of any unprogrammed activity at the facility until now according to our records.

This really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Remember that, unlike the nation’s coal mines, other workplaces are not required to be inspected periodically by federal safety officials. We’ve written about this before here, here and here. And, as the AFL-CIO explained in its latest Death on the Job report, at the current rate, it would take OSHA’s small office in West Virginia — they’ve got just 8 inspectors — more than 100 years to inspect every workplace in the state.

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)

It’s been a week now since the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas, that killed 14 people, injured 160 and leveled part of the town.

Am I the only one who is starting to wonder why we haven’t heard much of anything yet from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about its work so far to get to the bottom of what caused this disaster?

Remember that the CSB announced late last Wednesday night that it was deploying a team to the site, and at least one media report said the small agency had at least a dozen investigators on the scene.

So what you want about the Chemical Safety Board — and the fine recent reporting by the Center for Public Integrity points out some serious issues facing the agency — but the agency is generally one of the more transparent in the federal government. They’ve got a fairly aggressive press office, and it’s unusual for them to parachute into an accident site and not be pretty quickly having media availabilities to outline what they’re doing there and spell out general areas they think will be important going into a new investigation (see for example here and here).

So far, though, I don’t believe we’ve had one single update from the board’s investigation team in West, Texas.

Now, this disaster highlights quite a lot of issues that have been raised during the CSB’s previous investigations here in West Virginia following the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010. And some media reports are already focused on these issues. For example:

— How accurate and useful are the “risk management plans” that companies are supposed to file with regulators as part of the process of trying to reduce hazards and prepare for potential accidents? Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News reported very early on that West Fertilizer’s plan greatly downplayed the potential risks of its facility, and we know from an EPA Inspector General’s report released just last month about much-needed improvements in federal oversight of RMPs.

— Why was this facility last inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1985? Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post has offered some potential explanations for this. But we’ve seen this pattern before in West Virginia (see here, here and here), where OSHA ignores a potentially dangerous facility for years, until someone — or many someones — is hurt or killed. Even when some obscure OSHA policy or politically-motivated congressional rider doesn’t prohibit that agency from acting, OSHA is so underfunded and understaffed that at last count by the AFL-CIO, the agency can inspect all workplaces on average just once every 131 years.

— Firefighters in West, Texas, apparently knew of the presence of dangerous chemicals at the fertilizer facility, but it’s not yet clear how that information played into their response to the initial fire at the facility. In previous incidents here in West Virginia (see here, here and here), emergency response — though heroic — has not always been well-planned and sometimes leads to more risk or even, tragically, more deaths.

Since we hadn’t heard anything from the CSB, I sent their managing director, Daniel Horowitz, some questions about these issues, hoping to get a better idea of which of them would be a focus on the agency’s investigation at West Fertilizer. My request got an odd response. Here it is:

These are reasonable questions but at the current time both the site and the investigation are under the direction of the federal ATF and the state fire marshal. I am referring your questions to those agencies in the event they can provide information.

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