WASHINGTON, May 15, 2002 — The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, nearing the end of a lengthy investigation, has concluded that federal regulations designed to prevent catastrophic accidents involving a widely used group of hazardous chemicals are “inadequate.”
After its own investigation of the same issue, the Center for Public Integrity reported recently that the Bush administration had quietly shelved a proposal, opposed by Bush campaign donors, which could have expanded workplace-safety regulations covering the group, known as reactive chemicals.
Reactive chemicals can become dangerously unstable when they’re mixed improperly with other chemicals, or alone when they’re subjected to water, air, heat or pressure. That instability can lead to runaway reactions (including the release of toxic gases), fires and explosions.
The Bush administration abandoned the proposal to address such dangers more fully despite evidence linking dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries to reactive chemicals that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s accident-prevention standard doesn’t regulate.
That evidence included a never-published study commissioned by OSHA and also the preliminary findings of the independent investigation by the Chemical Safety Board, a nonregulatory federal agency.
In its initial report on the issue, published April 11, the Center cited some of the board’s tentative findings. Others have now been announced by the agency in the Federal Register.
OSHA decided which reactive materials to regulate in the early 1990s on the basis of a private fire-prevention group’s hazard-ranking list. But the Chemical Safety Board has concluded that this “list-based approach” is “inadequate because it fails to address the hazards from combinations of chemicals and process-specific conditions” in individual plants.
Board investigators found that about 70 percent of the 167 serious incidents it investigated involved the chemical manufacturing industry. In incidents where information about the cause was available, 60 percent involved “inadequate management systems for identifying hazards or conducting process hazard evaluations.”
The full evaluation and safe management of chemical hazards are principles at the heart of OSHA’s accident-prevention regulations, contained in its Process Safety Management standard.
The shelved proposal to expand that standard and cover more reactive chemicals was prepared during the Clinton administration in response to a petition by several industrial and firefighter unions, but left for the Bush administration to decide whether to adopt.
“Unaware of industry objections”
In response to questions posed by the Center during its examination of the issue, an OSHA spokesperson said that agency was “unaware of any industry objections” to the proposal. Another government source told the Center, however, that three key organizations representing the chemical and oil industries had actually opposed the shelved regulatory initiative during its drafting, stressing cost concerns.
Since the initial Public i report about those conflicting statements was published, the Center has obtained documentary evidence confirming that the industry organizations expressed strong opposition to the idea of regulating more reactive chemicals.
A 1996 letter, sent to OSHA by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now called the American Chemistry Council), said it also represented the views of the American Petroleum Institute.
“Expanding the scope and coverage of the (chemical- accident) standard would make it unwieldy and overall, less effective,” the two groups told OSHA in the letter. They further argued that the standard was already “effective” without covering more reactive chemicals, and that “OSHA should not take action to expand its coverage.”
A 1997 document that summarized the joint position of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, American Petroleum Institute, and Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association was presented during “discussions with OSHA.”
In one passage, printed in boldface for emphasis, this summary of the three trade organizations’ presentation said they “believe strongly that the (chemical-accident) standard is appropriate as it stands and urge OSHA not to expand (it) in an attempt to address the very difficult issue of reactive hazards.”
The OSHA spokesperson’s statement that the agency was “unaware of any industry objections” to the shelved proposal was a response to one of the written questions that the Center had sent OSHA several weeks earlier. This question asked specifically whether industry representatives or groups had opposed the proposal and whether OSHA had any “letters or other documents detailing these objections.”
The letter and meeting summary were provided to the Center by Eric Frumin, a union official in the forefront of efforts to get more reactive chemicals covered under the accident standard.
Frumin, safety and health director of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, said he was given the documents by a senior OSHA official who said they represented the industry groups’ position on the proposal.
In its investigation of the issue, the Center sought comment from the three trade organizations but received no response. President Bush’s presidential campaign received $216,000 in contributions from employees of the three groups, their member companies, and their political action committees.
Reactives suspected in Manhattan explosion
Union leaders are now trying to focus new public attention on the dangers of reactive chemicals by citing an explosion last month in a Manhattan building where chemicals were stored and used. Dozens of people were injured in the blast. Investigators suspect an “unregulated reactive incident,” one told the Center.
Gerald Poje, a member of the Chemical Safety Board, wrote last week in a New York Post column that despite initial fears about another terrorist strike against New York City, “the early suspect in this blast is an uncontrolled, accidental chemical reaction.”
Poje added that “preliminary findings point to inadequate regulations and poor training regarding reactive chemicals, circumstances we are quite familiar with at the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.”
Meanwhile, the board has scheduled a public hearing for May 30, when it will present the findings and preliminary conclusions of its general investigation of reactive chemical hazards. Among the issues on which the board will seek public comment are whether the coverage of OSHA’s accident-prevention standard for hazardous chemicals should be improved, and how.
The hearing will be held in Paterson, N.J., the site of a 1998 explosion at a now-closed Morton International plant, which involved a chemical that isn’t regulated by OSHA’s accident standard or by a complementary program of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2000, the Chemical Safety Board concluded that the Paterson incident – which injured nine workers and released hazardous chemicals into the surrounding community – might not have happened if the plant’s program for handling reactive chemicals had followed “recommended industry safety practices.”