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October 12, 2009
Volume 87, Number 41
pp. 13 - 13

Unions Criticize Safety Board Again

Investigation: Panel's report on 2008 oleum release lacks teeth, unions say

Jeff Johnson

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Overfilled oleum tanks leaked and caused 2,500 residents near Pittsburgh to evacuate or shelter in place in October 2008. CSB
Overfilled oleum tanks leaked and caused 2,500 residents near Pittsburgh to evacuate or shelter in place in October 2008.

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Once again, chemical workers’ unions are criticizing the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) over the strength of recommendations in its report on an industrial accident investigation and over the conduct of the probe itself.

The report concerns an accident on Oct. 11, 2008, at Indspec Chemical, a firm owned by Occidental Petroleum and located 40 miles north of Pittsburgh. Routine use of a “temporary,” emergency-only electricity outlet to power pumps that transferred oleum—a mixture of sulfuric acid and sulfur trioxide—to process tanks at the plant resulted in a leak, affecting 2,500 residents in three communities, CSB says in a report released last week.

Several chemical workers’ unions, including United Steelworkers (USW), which represents Indspec workers, object to the report, echoing recent concerns with the quality of CSB reports (C&EN, Sept. 28, page 12). The CSB study contains “general and somewhat vague recommendations,” says Harry Boltz, president of the USW Indspec local.

The board limited its report to a brief 14-page “lessons learned” synopsis and made four plant-specific recommendations. In comparison, Boltz says, OSHA’s accident investigation resulted in 27 legally binding requirements, and the company’s report made 30 specific recommendations.

The accident took place on a Saturday, when workers were pumping oleum from storage to process tanks. Almost 30 years ago, the company installed an emergency electrical outlet at the pumping site because of problems with a normal outlet, CSB says. The emergency-only outlet, however, lacked automatic controls to shut off electricity to the pumps when the tanks reached capacity.

Over the years, operators forgot this fact. And on the fateful day, they took a break and left the plant as the process tanks began to fill, reached capacity, and leaked oleum. In a white mist, oleum slowly exited the plant, combined with moisture in the air, and formed a dense, corrosive, sulfuric acid cloud that drifted into neighboring towns.

Soon thereafter, emergency officials called for people to evacuate or shelter in place for eight hours.

USW and other chemical workers’ unions also complain that they were shut out of the CSB investigation because Indspec claimed accident information was privileged. The unions urge CSB to modify its investigative processes to include worker and community input and to consider redoing the investigation.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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