Citizens, officials should make chemical facilities safer
By Rafael Moure-Eraso
It was unthinkable. A chemical used to process coal, which smells like licorice, of uncertain toxicity, flows out of a nondescript, overlooked aboveground tank, into the Elk River and then into the drinking water supply of hundreds of thousands of adults, children and infants in and around the capital city of West Virginia.
The Chemical Safety Board investigation of the leak of up to 7,500 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is underway. We will release our findings as soon as they are developed. But I don't think the residents and officials of Kanawha and surrounding counties need to wait for another CSB report for guidance on what needs to be done to better protect workers and the public from chemical accidents. I join those who have already called for action, to come together and create a local authority to serve as a watchdog for chemical safety in the Kanawha River valley.
Three years ago this month we came to Institute to hold a public meeting in which the board offered several recommendations to Kanawha County and the state in the wake of the Bayer CropScience waste tank explosion that killed two workers and came perilously close to releasing deadly methyl isocyanate into the atmosphere.
We recommended that the county, working with the state, establish a hazardous chemical release prevention program to enhance safety and optimize emergency responses. It would be a county industrial safety authority, paid for by fees assessed on the companies processing or handling potentially dangerous chemicals. As an example, we cited the successful program in California's Contra Costa County, which has an equally dense industrial chemical base.
State and local authorities tell us they considered the recommendation but for whatever reasons it has not been adopted.
That recommendation was aimed at highly hazardous chemicals such as those used at high-hazard chemical processing sites, and not necessarily at storage facilities such as Freedom Industries. Still, we recommended such an entity be empowered to determine just what posed a high hazard. Perhaps qualified inspectors would have considered aging chemical storage tanks, located just upstream from a public drinking water treatment plant, to be potentially "highly hazardous" and worthy of a closer look.
I'm aware that some West Virginians view regulations on businesses with some skepticism and disapproval, and are reluctant to support increased government oversight if it might discourage economic activity or job creation. While our investigation of this leak will examine regulatory gaps, it seems evident to me already that an investment in reasonable local regulations and safety inspections would have been well paid for by preventing the high cost of massive personal and business interruptions, the anxiety stemming from the threat to a basic necessity of life, and avoiding the potential health effects - as yet unknown - of the contamination that thousands faced.
As a supplement to a county safety agency, the public and its representatives might consider what we call the safety case model, as discussed in a recent draft CSB report on a California refinery accident. With input from the public and workers, companies draw up a written case for how they will prevent accidents. A competent regulatory agency then audits how the safety case is being executed. This model typically requires facilities to adopt safer designs, processes and equipment to reduce risk as low as practicable. In the case of Freedom Industries, this might have required modern tank designs with double walls and leak detection, corrosion-resistant materials, and regular inspection programs.
Transparency is crucial to public safety and accident prevention. I believe the public must be informed about potentially threatening chemical hazards and given an opportunity to speak up and demand action.
My guess is that had any of the 300,000 residents affected by the contamination known in advance that aging chemical tanks were just upstream of their drinking water source, they would have demanded inspections, maintenance and assurances from the company and relevant authorities.
As an agency, we are highly respectful of this great state, its people and institutions. We make recommendations as part of our mandate, and we don't do it lightly. Chemical accidents have now brought us to your state for the fifth time, beginning with the tragic January 2007 propane explosion at the Little General store in Ghent, which took the lives of four people and injured six others. There was the Bayer accident that killed two, and several at DuPont in Belle, where a worker was killed by exposure to phosgene gas when a hose ruptured. These were all preventable accidents.
We are committed to accident prevention and saving lives, but truth to tell, the best prevention starts with informed and concerned citizens, and I believe it's time to act.
Moure-Eraso is chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.