CSB: 30 years after Bhopal tragedy, it could happen here

On the 30th anniversary of a deadly chemical release in Bhopal, India, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called for the US government to reform its process safety management regulations to avoid a catastrophe like the one in Bhopal where thousands of people were killed by a toxic chemical vapor released into the atmosphere by the nearby Union Carbide pesticide plant.

“Process safety management regulations are in need of reform,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, CSB’s chairperson. “There must be more emphasis on preventing the occurrence of major chemical accidents through safer design. Responding to emergencies and punishing people after the fact are not enough.

Unions representing workers in plants and refineries that process toxic chemicals have made improved process safety a bargaining priority and in the past have supported similar CSB calls for improved process safety.

One union, the United Steelworkers, said that regulation reform isn’t enough; the government needs to dedicate more resources to enforce existing and new regulations, and workers and their unions need to a bigger say when it comes to making safety decisions at chemical plants and oil refineries.

Process safety management is a term used to identify actions that can be taken to identify and correct potential chemical processing hazards before they cause harm.

CSB, an independent government agency, recently released a short video describing the urgency of updating process safety management regulations in the US.

According to the video, dangerous chemical releases at plants and refineries that should have been prevented have threaten the lives of workers and those living nearby.

If more is not done to eliminate these preventable releases, the Bhopal tragedy could be repeated in the US.

In December 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, water began to leak into a corroded storage vessel containing 80,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic chemical. The leaking water set off a violent chemical reaction that spewed a deadly cloud into the atmosphere of the surrounding community, killing 3,800 people.

Over the years, thousands more succumbed to the effects of their poisoning.

According to the CSB video, a similar tragedy was narrowly avoided in 2008 when an explosion occurred  at a Union Carbide insecticide plant in Institute, West Virginia.

The explosion, which killed two workers and injured others, shot heavy pieces of metal into the air. The exploding debris narrowly missed a waste storage vessel containing MIC.

Had the hot metal pierced the MIC vessel a deadly leak could have occurred.

The video points to another chemical leak in Richmond, California in 2012 that endangered the lives of workers and people in the surrounding community.

At the Chevron refinery in Richmond corroded pipes began to leak causing a fire. The smoke from the fire drifted into Richmond and the nearby community of Martinez. Hundreds of people sought treatment for smoke related symptoms, but fortunately no one was killed.

According to CSB, the owners of the refinery had been aware for ten years that the pipes needed replacing, but delayed the repairs.

A CSB draft report of the causes of the fire and subsequent leak said that the pipes’ rupture was yet another example of the need for reformed process safety regulations.

In comments to the CSB’s draft report, the United Steelworkers (USW) agreed that better safety regulations are needed but noted that unless the government backs up these regulations with more resources to enforce them, safety will not improve.

The union pointed to existing safety regulations that are going unenforced because the enforcement agencies, primarily the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, don’t have the resources to enforce the regulations effectively.

The new regulations advocated by CSB would take even more resources, said USW.

Deadly leaks at a DuPont insecticide plant in LaPorte, Texas that took place in November have put the spotlight on process safety.

Four DuPont workers were killed after methyl mercaptan, another toxic chemical, leaked from a storage vessel and contaminated the air nearby.

DuPont for years enjoyed a reputation as a leader in work site safety.

But that reputation has become tarnished. According to the Associated Press, since 2007 there have been 34 reported leaks of chemicals at DuPont plants throughout the US causing eight worker deaths.

CSB is conducting an investigation into the causes of the leak and the resulting deaths in LaPorte.

CSB’s announcement about the need to upgrade process safety standards did not mention the tragedy in LaPorte because the investigation is still progress.

The announcement, however, cited lax process safety management as a key contributing factor to the leaks that caused the refinery fire in California.

“There was no mechanism to ensure continuous safety improvement (at the refinery); no requirement to implement inherent safety or the hierarchy of controls,” reads a statement by CSB.

CSB also cited the need to involve workers and their unions in making refineries and chemical plants safer.

“There should be an increased role for workers and worker representatives in process safety management,” said CSB.

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