On Thursday, the Chemical Safety Board's top official testified before a U.S. Senate joint committee that the DuPont accident that killed four men at the La Porte plant in November was caused by equipment failure.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso explained in written testimony submitted to a joint committee -- the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions -- what we know so far about what happened that day at DuPont. And what the Chemical Safety Board has found out about the setup at DuPont is by no means encouraging:
"On November 15, 2014, there was a release of methyl mercaptan, a highly toxic and volatile liquid, which DuPont itself has estimated at 23,000 pounds - a very significant quantity. Odors of the chemical were reportedly discernible many miles from the plant. Four workers - including operators and would-be rescuers - perished inside the methomyl-production building where the release originated."
There was at least some explanation for the West, Texas, explosion in 2013 -- the company was a small one, not necessarily falling under the gaze of frequent regulators, not necessarily aware of all the rules or best practices for handling volatile chemicals and thus one that could more easily slip through the regulatory system, Moure-Eraso noted. But the same cannot be said for DuPont, he stated. DuPont is one of the largest chemical companies in the world and it has a much-vaunted, highly burnished safety record in the industry. However, even at a company that carries itself as one of the safest in the world, things can go wrong.
Several days before the deadly accident at DuPont's La Porte plant last month, there had been an unplanned shutdown at the unit that produces methomyl, a highly toxic pesticide, because water had leaked into a storage tank, Moure Eraso testified.
DuPont was working to restart the process, but there was a plugged supply line leading from the methyl mercaptan storage tank. Moure-Eraso stated that investigators believe methyl mercaptan -- and possibly other toxic chemicals -- entered an interconnected vent system inside the building. Then the release occurred through a valve that was routinely opened to drain liquid out of the vent system and relieve the pressure inside. The thing is, that valve had a history of issues with liquid buildup, and the chemical was dumped directly into the work area in the building instead of going to a closed system.
In addition, the building's ventilation fans weren't being used and the company "did not effectively implement good safety practices requiring personnel to wear appropriate personal protective equipment that was present at the facility." That equipment includes supplied air respirators provided for workers to wear while doing potentially hazardous tasks.
To translate, there was a malfunction and then the workers were stuck in a situation without any working ventilation fans or air respirators to protect them.
"In summary, this was a complex process-related accident with tragic results. It gives rise to a number of design and organizational safety concerns. Its occurrence - taken along with other major accidents afflicting large and small corporations - underscores the need for some systemic reforms. It would be a serious and tragic mistake to consider each of these accidents as just another isolated event, reflecting only the limited practices of a small group of people operating outside regulatory scrutiny. If it can happen at DuPont, I would submit it can happen anywhere."
Mouro-Eraso also noted in his written testimony that was submitted to the Senate joint committee that despite CSB recommendations for regulating the storing and handling of ammonium nitrate -- the culprit in the West fertilizer plant explosion last year -- little has changed. "It is sobering to reflect that nearly two years after the West disaster, very little if anything has changed in terms of federal, state, or local requirements for ammonium nitrate handling and storage," he stated.
The joint committee hearing also featured testimony from Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, and David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. California Sen. Barbara Boxer hammered the pair with questions. She focused on the lack of progress made in regard to President Obama's executive order regarding chemical plants issued last August. Despite that order, which called on federal agencies including the EPA and OSHA to improve both safety and the security of hazardous chemical manufacturing sites, Boxer noted that little progress has actually been made.
"I value your work and I honor your work, but this is unacceptable," Boxer said, noting that next to nothing has changed since the West explosion in 2013.
"Our regulatory system, speaking from OSHA's point of view, is broken," Michaels responded.
Boxer didn't back down, asking when OSHA was planning on finishing up the requirements from Obama's executive order. The order was supposed to bridge the gaps in federal and state oversight, improve security and generally haul the chemical industry into the 21st century via federal agencies.
"We're on target to meet our deadlines within the system," Michaels said, but Boxer wasn't having it.
"Well, I don't know what the heck your deadlines are. Can you put it in writing?"
Then Stanislaus jumped in, but he gained no traction with Boxer. "I don't want to hear all this. I know what your goals are. When are you going to do it?"
There wasn't a clear answer.
Michaels also mentioned, as we've previously reported, that OSHA is hoping there will be an adjustment on the penalties OSHA can impose on companies since the current fines only go up to $70,000 for a worker death, a monetary slap on the wrist these days, and give the companies real monetary incentive to avoid violations. "We would be very grateful if Congress would allow us to issue penalties at a higher level...because right now our penalty system is ineffective," Michaels concluded.
Sen. Al Franken took the information in. "So there's no real deterrent and right now the highest fines are negligible."