CSB Investigation Report 'Disappoints' Paper Industry

Despite vigorous industry objections, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) voted 5-0 to approve an investigation report that examined the root causes of a hydrogen sulfide gas leak at Georgia Pacific's (GP) Naheola pulp and paper mill in Pennington, Ala.

The controversy over the investigation report, the fourth issued by the agency this year, appears to confirm that the dispute among chemistry industry stakeholders and CSB over whether to regulate reactive chemicals is growing.

The Jan. 16 incident investigated by CSB killed two and injured eight contract workers, and the report pointed to GP's faulty engineering and process safety practices as two root causes of the event.

Because of the strong substantive and procedural criticisms of the report voiced by lawyers representing GP and the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA), yesterday's (NOV. 20) public meeting in Washington, DC turned out to be a somewhat rocky debut for the CSB's new chair, Carolyn Merritt.

On the day of the incident, sodium hydrosulfide spilled in an unloading area of the plant, and when it drained into a sewer and came into contact with acidic material, a chemical reaction took place that produced deadly hydrogen sulfide gas. The toxic gas vented from the sewer through a nearby fiberglass manhole cover and engulfed the workers. The two deaths and all but one of the injuries were among employees of Burkes Construction, who were working in the vicinity on an unrelated construction project.

CSB's long list of recommendations for GP include the following:

  • Apply good engineering and process safety principles to process sewer systems;
  • Evaluate process sewers where chemicals may collect and interact, and identify potential hazardous reaction scenarios;
  • Identify areas where hydrogen sulfide could be present, institute safeguards to limit exposure and require appropriate training;
  • Update emergency response plans to include decontamination procedures for these areas;
  • Communicate the CSB findings to the company's workforce, contractors at all pulp and paper mills.

In addition, CSB called on the AFPA to communicate the report's findings with all member companies.

"Frankly, I'm disappointed at the limited contact we've had with your staff during the preparation of this report," commented Lawrence Halprin, a lawyer representing AFPA who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting.

He accused CSB of "jumping the gun" by calling upon GP to apply OSHA's "very burdensome" Process Safety Management (PSM) standard to an area where it is not currently applicable. Halprin noted that reactive chemicals are "controversial" and that OSHA has not yet decided how or whether to regulate them, indicating it is inappropriate for CSB to try to control reactive chemicals with the PSM standard. CSB is not an enforcement agency, he argued, and Halprin worried that OSHA could rely on the report to cite GP or other companies for violating OSHA's General Duty Clause in future reactive chemical incidents.

CSB recently completed a hazard investigation report that calls upon OSHA to include reactive chemicals in its PSM standard.

"We're concerned this report will not satisfy the Office of Management and Budget's data quality guidelines that came out recently dealing with the factual accuracy of reports such as this one," said Robert Buckler, an attorney representing GP.

Buckler cited four changes he requested in the final report that were not made. The disputes range from facts Buckler wanted added, to points he wanted placed earlier in the report, to a quarrel over one of CSB's recommendations.

After the two lawyers had finished, Merritt defended the report.

"This is a new agency, established by Congress to do exactly what we have done in this instance," Merritt said. "Investigate a chemical accident, identify root causes and make recommendations to prevent this from happening again."

Board member Irv Rosenthal moved that the report be accepted conditionally, so that the concerns raised by Buckler and Halprin could be reviewed. But after Charles Jeffress, CSB's chief operating officer, noted that staff had already reviewed all of the complaints and altered the report in response to some of them, no one seconded Rosenthal's motion.

"I think Mr. Rosenthal's motion was appropriate," commented Buckler in an interview after the meeting. "I'm disappointed the board took no time to consider our comments."

Buckler did confirm there was nothing factual in the report he wanted deleted; and that the CSB staff had already made "a few" of the changes he had requested – he could not recall just how many.

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