Chemical safety advocates want accident prevention plan enacted

Henry Clark remembers growing up in the shadow of the huge Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. Leaks, fires and all manner of incidents were a common part of life.

“The air would be so foul that I had to grab my nose and go back inside,” Clark recalled. “Explosions at the refinery would literally rock my house.”

In recent years, though, Clark has noticed improvements. Accidents at the facility had declined significantly. Clark credits creation in 1998 of the Contra Costa County Industrial Safety Ordinance.

“There are some good things going on — programs that you could adopt in West Virginia,” said Clark, an environmental justice activist and executive director of the local Toxics Coalition.

Clark spoke in Charleston on Friday as part of a two-day Summit on Chemical Safety in West Virginia, sponsored by the group People Concerned About Chemical Safety. The event continues Saturday at Ferguson Baptist Church, in Dunbar.

The event coincides with this week’s fifth anniversary of a string of leaks at the DuPont Co. plant in Belle, including a release of phosgene gas that killed longtime employee Danny Fish.

Those incidents prompted a scathing U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that was highly critical of DuPont’s safety practices and a repeat of the board’s previous recommendation — issued after two workers died in a 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute — that the Kanawha Valley needed its own chemical accident prevention program. State and local officials have declined to follow the board’s recommendation, which was opposed by industry lobby groups.

After the Freedom Industries chemical leak into the Elk River a year ago, local activists, led by Maya Nye of the People Concerned group, began trying to re-open discussion of the board’s recommendation. They managed to convince lawmakers to include the issue in SB 373, the legislation passed in the wake of the Freedom leak. Under the bill, the state’s new Public Water Supply Study Commission was required to examine the board’s recommendation.

In a report issued in December, the commission said it “is still studying and working with citizen groups and intends to have information to report” in its next annual report, at the end of the year.

This week’s chemical safety summit is partly an effort by People Concerned to learn more about the Contra Costa County program — the model for the CSB’s recommendation — and to promote state and local officials taking on the implementation of a similar program.

Randy Sawyer, who directs the Contra Costa County program, said the effort there includes requiring companies to submit studies outlining how they minimize the risk of accidents, a review of those reports by local officials and periodic inspections of facilities by his agency.

The program covers far more chemicals than a national risk-management effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and requires far more public involvement, Sawyer said.

“I would consider this a landmark process that really sets the bar very high,” said Jose Bravo, executive director of Just Transition, a coalition of environmental justice and labor groups that supports the program.

Since Contra Costa adopted its ordinance, the number of major chemical accidents has dropped from 12, in 2001, to two, in 2012, according to an annual report from the county.

In August 2012, though, there was a major fire at the Chevron refinery that sent more than 15,000 residents to the hospital for medical attention.

The CSB has recommended steps to provide stronger regulatory oversight with community involvement, and local officials are taking steps in that direction.

Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, a moderator at Friday’s event, said organizers tried to get officials from various local chemical plants and companies to attend the summit, but “weren’t able to do so.”

C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County’s deputy emergency services director, attended the session but declined to take a position on the CSB’s recommendation for a new local chemical safety program.

“I’m here just on a fact-finding mission,” Sigman said. “I have no opinion right now. We’re just trying to understand what’s going on.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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