Sustained Outrage

New scrutiny for C8 alternatives and DuPont

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DuPont, C8 and chemicals being used to replace C8 are receiving new attention today, with the publication of a major essay in a scientific journal and the release of a critical report by the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.

The New York Times wrapped these developments into a story headlined, “Commonly used chemicals come under new scrutiny“:

A top federal health official and hundreds of environmental scientists on Friday voiced new health concerns about a common class of chemicals used in products as varied as pizza boxes and carpet treatments.

The concerted public campaign renews a years-old debate about a class of chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. After studies showed that some PFASs lingered in people’s bodies for years, and appeared to increase the risks of cancer and other health problems, the chemical manufacturer DuPont banned the use of one type of PFAS in its popular Teflon products, and other companies followed suit.

At issue now are replacement chemicals developed by those manufacturers and used in thousands of products, including electronics, footwear, sleeping bags, tents, protective gear for firefighters and even the foams used to extinguish fires.

The new commentary, by Linda S. Birnbaum of the National Institutes of Health and Harvard’s Philippe Grandjean, explains:

Research is needed to understand the potential for adverse health effects from exposure to the short-chain PFASs, especially regarding low-dose endocrine disruption and immunotoxicity. In parallel, research is needed to find safe alternatives for all current uses of PFASs. The question is, should these chemicals continue to be used in consumer products in the meantime, given their persistence in the environment? And, in the absence of indisputably safe alternatives, are consumers willing to give up certain product functionalities, such as stain resistance, to protect themselves against potential health risks? These conundrums cannot be resolved by science alone but need to be considered in an open discussion informed by the scientific evidence.

The Environmental Working Group report adds:

Production, use and importation of PFOA has ended in the United States, but in its place DuPont and other companies are using similar compounds that may not be much – if at all – safer. These next-generation PFCs are used in greaseproof food wrappers, waterproof clothing and other products. Few have been tested for safety, and the names, composition and health effects of most are hidden as trade secrets. With the new PFCs’ potential for harm, continued global production, the chemicals’ persistence in the environment and presence in drinking water in at least 29 states, we’re a long way from the day when PFCs will be no cause for concern.

 EWG also notes, citing what’s known as the “Madrid Statement”:

In a just-published paper, 14 international scientists have sounded the alarm, calling for tighter controls on all PFCs lest the tragic history of C8 repeat itself. Writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, they likened the new PFCs (which they refer to as PFASs) to the chemicals that replaced another group of fluorine-based substances found in the 1980s to be depleting Earth’s protective ozone layer. Although those chemicals were banned worldwide under a 1987 treaty, the scientists wrote, the alternatives are also harmful:

Global action through the Montreal Protocol successfully reduced the use of the highly persistent ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), thus allowing for the recovery of the ozone layer. However, many of the organofluorine replacements for CFCs are still of concern due to their high global warming potential. It is essential to learn from such past efforts and take measures at the international level to reduce the use of PFASs in products and prevent their replacement with fluorinated alternatives in order to avoid long-term harm to human health and the environment.

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Good news: The latest “State of the Air” report

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There’s some good news for Kanawha Valley residents in the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” annual report:

The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2015” report released today finds the 3-state, 12-county Charleston-Huntington-Ashland, WV-OH-KY metropolitan area improved to its best-ever performance for two of the three measures of air pollution the report tracks.  Compared with last year’s report, its ranking among metro areas nationwide also improved in those two categories: fine particle pollution measured on a short-term (daily) and long-term (year-round) basis.

According to the 2015 report, based on data for the three-year period of 2011-2013, all monitored counties in the Charleston-Huntington-Ashland metro area earned “A” grades for posting zero days of unhealthy levels of particle pollution, placing the metro area onto the American Lung Association’s “Cleanest Cities” list for this pollutant.

The metro area’s rank for this measure improved slightly from 96th to 98th worst in the nation.  In addition to Cabell County, WV, which was promoted to its first “A” after three straight years of “B’s,” Kanawha County, WV, Boyd County, KY, and Lawrence and Scioto Counties, OH, all repeated last year’s “A” grades.

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.

Citizens urge caution on Freedom Industries cleanup

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Mark Welch, chief restructuring officer of Freedom Industries (center), briefs Department of Environmental Protection officials on the site during an inspection on April 3. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

If you read the reports that Freedom Industries’ Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch files with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson, you would think that the remediation of the site of the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill is about wrapped up. But to hear the state Department of Environmental Protection tell the story, that’s far from true — DEP says it’s still waiting to see test results on soil and groundwater at the site, and that there’s a long road yet before the project completes work under the state’s “voluntary” remediation program.

We detailed the latest twist in this somewhat confusing story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail:

Freedom Industries officials are pressing West Virginia regulators for speedy approval of the company’s plan to complete a voluntary cleanup of the site of the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in the Kanawha Valley and surrounding communities.

… Welch told Pearson in his new report that the company had submitted a work plan earlier last week and that Freedom could complete the remediation contemplated within two weeks. Welch said the DEP had agreed to “expeditiously review and respond to the work plan.”

Welch said Freedom has dug up 600 cubic yards of contaminated soil and would, under its proposed work plan, dig up another 200 cubic yards of soil from areas where MCHM was stored or handled. He said the company would fill in with clean soil a water-runoff collection trench where sampling has continued to pick up the presence of MCHM. A new sediment-control pond would be built along the Elk River that could be used, at least temporarily, for continued sampling.

Completion of this work, Welch told the court, would mean “there is no risk of further MCHM leaching into the Elk River.”

This morning, the citizen group People Concerned about Chemical Safety, responded to that story, with a press release that urged DEP to “prevent cutting corners” on the Freedom cleanup project:

Recent tests, however, performed by U.S. Geological Survey, Virginia Tech and University of Memphis leave more questions on the toxicity of the spilled material.

Past studies assume the spilled material to have the same fate properties regardless of temperature. However, a recent report from Virginia Tech and University of Memphis indicates differing fate properties proving the previous hypothesis false. This indicates the potential for exposure concentrations to vary

The U.S. Geological Survey recently determined that a form of methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate (or MMCHC), was identified as another component of the spilled material and that it “likely contributed to the tap water odor complaints of Charleston residents.” No toxicological data is available for this chemical and the CDC has never established a screening level for this chemical.

What is clear from these recent findings is that the data does not yet exist to properly determine the risk at the Freedom cleanup site. In light of these findings, PCACS is urging DEP to ensure additional tests are performed to properly characterize site risk.

Among other things, People Concerned noted that DEP could seek to have money from criminal restitution payments from Freedom executives — four of whom have pleaded guilty in federal court — set aside for help with the site cleanup. Also, the group noted that DEP is accepting public comments on the Freedom cleanup via email at DEPVRPComments@wv.gov.

 

 

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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Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

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In this Dec. 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal, India.  (AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar, File)

Thirty years ago tonight, a leak of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

As many Kanawha Valley residents know well, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience. And just months after Bhopal, a Carbide leak in Institute sent 135 people to the hospital in an event that gave momentum to passage by Congress of the landmark chemical right-to-know and emergency planning law.

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.  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.

Coal Water PollutionBut other events remind us of the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface without proper regulation, enforcement and attention to safety. Locally, last January’s chemical spill by Freedom Industries was a case study in what can happen without prior planning or adequate government oversight (see here, here,here and here). State lawmakers responded by passing a very strong bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks and local drinking water systems, but the new Republican-controlled Legislature appears poised to dismantle that bill in the upcoming 2015 session, based largely on unfounded criticisms of the bill’s potential costs (see here and here).

Despite continued serious chemical plant accidents around the nation, the Obama administration’s response and its proposed reforms have been disappointing to safety advocates.  Just last week, in its latest regulatory agenda, Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration downgraded its efforts to write a new safety standard for combustible dust to a long-term action item, meaning it’s unlikely any rule will see the light of day during this administration. OSHA has delayed this rule for many years, and as we’ve written before, combustible accidents continue to claim the lives of workers, including three in a December 2010 explosion and fire in Hancock County, W.Va.

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CSB puts safety rule reform on ‘Most Wanted’ list

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

Today the U.S. Chemical Safety Board formally announced that to “Modernize U.S. Process Safety Management Regulations” is the Board’s newest Most Wanted Safety Improvement, concluding that implementation of key federal and state CSB safety recommendations will result in significant improvement of Process Safety Management (PSM) regulations in the United States. 

Over the last two decades, the CSB has made a number of recommendations related to OSHA’s PSM program and EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP), many of which have not been fully implemented. By adding the modernizing of U.S. process safety management regulations to the CSB’s Most Wanted Safety Improvement list, the agency is identifying this issue as one of the board’s most important recommendations-related goals.

Moure-ErasoBoard Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

As Chairperson of the CSB I see this as an important opportunity to advance national process safety management reform by advocating for this issue as part of the board’s Most Wanted Chemical Safety Improvements Program. My hope is that reform will  help to prevent future catastrophic accidents.

In a prepared statement, the CSB explained:

… That despite some positive improvements in PSM regulations in the U.S., regulations have undergone little reform since their inception in the 1990s. Of particular interest are the board’s recent investigations of major refinery incidents that found that PSM and RMP, although written as performance-based regulations, appear to function primarily as reactive and activity-based regulatory frameworks that require extensive rulemaking to modify.  This potentially results in stagnating risk levels, even as industry-recommended best practices and technology continue to advance in the U.S. and overseas.

Specifically, the CSB’s  investigations of recent major refinery accidents found that there was no requirement to reduce risks to As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP); there was no mechanism to ensure continuous safety improvement; no requirement to implement inherent safety or the hierarchy of controls; that there should be an increased role for workers and worker representatives in process safety management; and that there needs to be a more proactive, technically qualified regulator.

Will lawmakers get serious about gas industry safety?

Well Explosion

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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Former Carbide CEO Warren Anderson dies

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The New York Times has this news of interest to West Virginians in the Kanawha Valley:

Warren M. Anderson, a Brooklyn carpenter’s son who ascended to the top of the Union Carbide Corporation, where he grappled with the ravages of a poisonous gas leak at the company’s plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 that killed thousands in one of history’s most lethal industrial accidents, died on Sept. 29 at a nursing home in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 92.

His death, which was not announced by his family, was confirmed from public records.

The Times of India headline is a little different, “Bhopal’s tormentor Warren Anderson of Union Carbide dies at 92,” and their story explains:

Anderson flew to Bhopal four days after the disaster and was immediately arrested. But he paid bail under controversial circumstances, including reported collusion and lax oversight by the state and central government, and flew out of India, never to return again.

In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million to the Indian government to settle litigation stemming from the disaster, but the settlement was widely seen as a sell-out. Efforts resumed to have Anderson extradited but successive US administrations showed no interest in bringing him or Union Carbide to justice.

Anderson was a well-known figure here in the Charleston area, where Carbide had sprawling plants and a research center.  One of those facilities, of course, was a sister plant to the one in Bhopal and, until fairly recently, had a huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, the chemical in the Bhopal leak.

When Anderson visited Charleston not long after Bhopal, he received multiple standing ovations.  He also did a lengthy Q and A session with the late Gazette publisher Ned Chilton and various Gazette editors.

India Bhopal

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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