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CSB renews call for local chemical safety program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Tuesday approved the final version of its report on three January 2010 accidents that left one DuPont Co. Belle plant worker dead and created major questions about the company's safety practices.

Board members voted 4-1 to approve the report, along with its recommendation that the Kanawha Valley create a new chemical plant safety program aimed at preventing future leaks, explosions and fires.

"The board continues to feel that's an important recommendation," said agency spokesman Daniel Horowitz. "We're pleased with the support from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. We hope the recommendation is adopted."

A final version of the board report, to reflect changes made after a 45-day public comment period, is expected to be released in a few days. Horowitz said the rewrites did not reflect major changes in conclusions or recommendations.

In a draft report issued in July, board investigators found common threads -- including poor maintenance practices, ineffective warning alarms and insufficient accident investigations -- among the three incidents that occurred over a 33-hour period Jan. 22-23, 2010.

Chief among the findings was that nearly 25 years ago, DuPont rejected proposals to enclose the Belle plant's phosgene unit, a move that would have protected workers and local residents from the poisonous material used as a chemical weapon in World War I. CSB investigators also concluded that the most serious of the incidents, a fatal phosgene leak, was caused by the use of the wrong type of chemical hose and DuPont's failure to replace that inadequate hose on its own required schedule.

The board's 172-page draft report focused on the Jan. 23, 2010, phosgene leak that killed longtime plant worker Danny Fish. But agency experts also examined a methyl chloride leak that went on for five days before being discovered on Jan. 22, 2010, and a release of the chemical oleum the same morning as the deadly phosgene leak.

David Hastings, a regional public affairs manager for Dupont, said the company is pleased that the report has been finalized.

"We will review the final report very closely when it is released, and plan to cooperate with the CSB in addressing their recommendations regarding the Belle site," he  said in a prepared statement. "In June 2010, DuPont completed its own investigation of the January 2010 incidents. We have already implemented all the recommendations resulting from our own investigations." 

CSB members first proposed the local chemical plant safety program in January 2011, in their report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

Agency investigators said the program could be modeled after a highly successful one in Contra Costa County, Calif. Generally, such a program would require companies to submit safety plans, require government safety audits of plants, and give the public a greater say in monitoring safety performance at local companies. The program could be funded by a fee paid by companies that make, use and store dangerous chemicals.

Local and national chemical industry lobbyists urged the CSB members to drop the proposal when they finalized the DuPont investigation report.

The American Chemistry Council said such a program "would create unnecessary redundancies, as well as the imposition of additional economic burdens on local industries, communities and state governments."

"Given the existing federal agency oversight with mandated industry regulations, we contend the West Virginia environment is better served through effective execution and compliance oversight by the current agencies," said a separate letter from Karen Price, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

CSB officials, though, noted that inspections of local chemical plants by federal officials are rare -- the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration hadn't inspected DuPont's Belle plant for more than five years when the fatal phosgene leak occurred. A local agency would be more focused on and better able to address issues at local plants, the CSB said.

So far, though, West Virginia officials are stalling any action on the CSB recommendation.

Dr. Michael Lewis, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, has declined to use his agency's existing legal authority to help the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department set up the program. Lewis, a physician and former Union Carbide engineer, said he would instead ask the Legislature for money to study the matter further.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said last week that he's concerned the CSB recommendation isn't being moved on faster by the state. Another study isn't needed, Gupta said.

"I thought that's what the CSB did and the jury was in. They did that work for us -- why should we use taxpayer dollars to do that again?" Gupta said. "To me, it looks like a way to put the issue into a black hole."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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