Feds: Boost Kanawha's chemical safety plan
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal investigators are expected to recommend next month that Kanawha County adopt new chemical plant safety regulations modeled after the strongest local program in the nation.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board officials propose a plan similar to the Industrial Safety Ordinance adopted more than a decade ago in Contra Costa County, Calif.
The ordinance aims to prevent chemical leaks and other accidents by involving industry and the community in such efforts, requiring industry to submit safety plans, and conducting audits of those plans and inspections of area plants. These efforts have been credited with a steady decline in major chemical accidents in Contra Costa County and the city of Richmond, Calif.
Chemical Safety Board investigators came up with the proposal for creation of a similar program in Kanawha County as part of their final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer CropScience's plant in Institute. Board members plan to release the final report at a public meeting in Institute on Jan. 20.
CSB staffers were in the Kanawha Valley this week, briefing the chemical industry, local citizens and area political leaders about the report and its draft recommendations.
Among those who met with the CSB were officials from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, one agency being considered to handle any new chemical safety program locally.
"I definitely like the idea of having something of that nature within our community," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the Health Department's director. "When we talk about reducing the risk of additional incidents in our community, it's a good idea."
Gupta said his agency has some expertise in health impacts of toxic chemical releases, but would need to hire staff or develop in-house knowledge of the inner workings of chemical facilities. Also, he said, it's likely that creation of such a local ordinance would first require legislation by state lawmakers to allow such a move.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he would support the CSB recommendation and work to create some sort of chemical plant "user fee" so that local companies, rather than taxpayers, fund the effort.
"I anticipate this will be the board's recommendation," Carper said, "and if they recommend it, I will support it."
After meeting with the CSB staff, Bayer officials released a brief statement.
"We support the Chemical Safety Board's efforts to look at ways to enhance safety and communicate within our community," said plant manager Steve Hedrick. "We are meeting with them today to discuss these ideas and also look forward to participating in their public meeting in January."
John Vorderbrueggen, the CSB's investigations supervisor, said board investigators focused on coming up with better local involvement in chemical safety because of intense concerns in the Kanawha Valley about Bayer's huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate gas, the chemical responsible for thousands of deaths in Union Carbide's 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India.
Local activists have for years called for the Institute plant to eliminate its use of MIC in pesticide manufacturing. Those efforts got nowhere, though, until investigators from the board and a congressional committee warned in April 2009 that the August 2008 explosion and fire could have damaged an MIC storage tank and caused a Bhopal-like disaster here.
Bayer is working on a project that will reduce MIC inventory by 80 percent, but that still leaves a stockpile of up to 50,000 pounds, far more than any other U.S. plant.
"We know that for the last 25 years or so, there has been an acute concern and in some cases fear of a specific highly toxic chemical," Vorderbrueggen said Wednesday. "That very clearly warranted looking deeper."
Vorderbrueggen said that board is looking at the Contra Costa model, as well as local chemical safety programs in New Jersey and Massachusetts, and visited the valley this week to get input on the idea from industry, citizens and government leaders.
While Kanawha and Putnam counties already share a Local Emergency Planning Committee, such agencies deal almost exclusively with responding to accidents, while the local programs the board is looking at are focused on bringing community members and companies together to find ways to prevent leaks, fires and explosions in the first place, Vorderbrueggen said. Such programs are usually self-financed through some sort of fees on the industry, he said.
Maya Nye of the group People Concerned About MIC said citizens are concerned because similar proposals have not gone far in West Virginia's Legislature in the past.
"Every attempt at true independent oversight of the chemical industry in this valley has resulted in industry-led and driven conversations that mute any dissenting voices in the community," Nye said. "We are hopeful that the influence of the CSB will help us finally achieve a true independent forum for communication and the audits we have requested for over 20 years."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.