CSB, Sen. Wellstone Keep Up the Pressure on Reactive Chemicals

Calling the failure of OSHA and EPA to regulate reactive chemicals a "loophole," Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., renewed his call for both agencies to begin enacting new standards that would close the alleged gap.

Wellstone, the chair of the Senate's OSHA oversight subcommittee, made his remarks from the Senate floor late last week, just before Congress adjourned and he returned to Minnesota where he faces a tough re-election battle.

The evidence used by the Minnesota senator to support his call for tougher regulations was the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) report on reactive chemicals.

According to the report, released last month, there have been 167 serious reactive chemical accidents over the last 20 years, causing 108 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. The study pointed to "significant gaps" in the coverage of reactive hazards under OSHA's Process Safety Management standard (29 CFR 1910.119); the board recommended that OSHA broaden the rule so it would apply to reactive hazards.

Wellstone initially urged OSHA to regulate reactive chemicals in July, at an OSHA oversight hearing he convened. Although OSHA Administrator John Henshaw called reactive chemical safety a "vital interest" of the agency, at the hearing he declined to commit the agency to rulemaking.

"I am deeply concerned at OSHA's failure to issue new and revised safety standards on an efficient schedule and at the low priority this item appears to have on OSHA's agenda," said Wellstone in his Oct. 17 statement from the Senate floor.

OSHA has not yet responded to CSB's recommendations either, but must do so within 180 days.

On Oct. 23, the CSB announced it would conduct a full investigation of the Oct. 13 distillation tower explosion at First Chemical Corp. near Pascagoula, Miss. "Preliminary indications point to an uncontrolled chemical reaction within the distillation tower," said CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt in announcing the investigation. Unlike most incidents that provoke a full CSB investigation, this explosion caused no fatalities or major injuries.

According to CSB, the explosion near Pascagoula hurled a six-ton section of the nitrotoluene distillation tower about 1,000 feet into a neighboring plant, where it came to rest near a crude oil storage tank.

"The accident occurred near several chemical facilities that store and handle hazardous materials," said CSB lead investigator Steve Selk. "Luck alone prevented debris from this explosion from causing a major chemical release."

Three out of the 23 workers on site at the time of the Oct. 20 explosion received minor injuries. Company personnel extinguished a fire ignited in a nitrotoluene storage tank at the plant.

First Chemical Corp., a subsidiary of ChemFirst Inc., is a producer of aniline and nitrotoluene derivatives and intermediates.

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