Sunday, April 28, 2013

West Texas and Ammonium Nitrate: Part 2

Ignorance that drives opinion that drives policy is what always needs to be fought against.  West Texas is a good case study for this.  I am wanting to answer "the inevitable questions about whether this tragedy could have been prevented."

First, though, I need to get some bad information out of the way and clear up some misunderstanding of how things work.  I do not claim to be an expert on all things environmental, but I have spent over 28 years of my life working in this industry dealing with these chemicals and the regulations that go with them.  When I write about what a particular regulation or laws states or requires I will back it up with a citation.

Here is what the organization "ProPublica" wrote on April 26, 2013:
Here’s what we do know: The fertilizer plant hadn't been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. Its owners do not seem to have told the Department of Homeland Security that they were storing large quantities of potentially explosive fertilizer, as regulations require. And the most recent partial safety inspection of the facility in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines.
Notice all the synonyms they have for conjecture?  One of them is "assumption."  So let us start there and look at the assumption that had the facility been inspected more often, Mr. Ohman and ProPublica "surmise,"  this accident would have been prevented.

Maybe, but most likely not.

First, we have to assume that this explosion was the result of process management that would have been noticed during an inspection.  As of this posting date, we do not know what caused the fire that led to the explosion.  Even ProPublica acknowledges that:
"authorities still don’t know exactly why the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant exploded."
To make a statement that it was Gov. Perry's "gamble with the lives of families by not pushing for the strongest safety regulations" is to imply that Gov. Perry has prevented said inspectors and therefore assumes that an inspector would have seen the root cause for this explosion.

Maybe, but most likely not.

In 2009, a little less than 100 miles South from West, Texas, ammonium nitrate in a warehouse at the El Dorado Chemical Co. was involved in a fire.

That fire was the result of this:
The incident that put Bryan on national TV started with a worker welding at the plant, which blends and packages fertilizer and other chemicals. The worker told authorities that a spark caught nearby ammonium nitrate on fire, prompting a call to emergency crews at 11:41 a.m.
Even if the inspector had been there one hour before the welder started, they would not have been able to stop the root cause - the spark from welding - from coming in contact with the ammonium nitrate unless they witnessed the welding that was to take place.  Inspections are designed to make sure regulations are being followed, policy is in place, and to correct those things that are visible and apparent at the time of the inspection.

The inspector might - might - have been able to reiterate safety, but that's only if the inspector was there from OSHA or the TDSHS.  A TCEQ inspector only looks at the parameter relevant to the environmental issue they are there to inspect for.  Would more frequent safety and environment inspections have stopped the el Dorado fire involving the ammonium nitrate?

Maybe, but most likely not.

So, to answer the "inevitable questions about whether this tragedy (El Dorado Chemical fire) could have been prevented," I say, yes it could have.

How?  By making sure that the welder understood the need for a Hot Work Permit and the enforcement of that permit by the company.

The simple use of a Hot work Permit by the welder and the company would have - most likely - most assuredly - prevented a spark from coming in contact with the ammonium nitrate.  Its simple really; no spark, no fire.

Here is why a Hot Work Permit would have worked at the El Dorado Chemical Co. OSHA Regulations, 29 CFR 1910.252 Welding, Cutting, and Brazing:
Before cutting or welding is permitted, the area shall be inspected by the individual responsible for authorizing cutting and welding operations. He shall designate precautions to be followed in granting authorization to proceed preferably in the form of a written permit.
Had that been done, had the welder and the company put two and two together - spark and ammonium nitrate = bad - this fire in Bryan would most likely - most assuredly - not have taken place.

The simple use of a Hot Work Permit, which you can found on the internet using a Google search, asks the following question:

Had these questions been asked and addressed it is unlikely that a fire in the El Dorado chemical Company warehouse would have taken place.  I am going to speculate that this was not done.

See how simple it is?  All it takes is two people understanding why we "make" you do burdensome things like filling out a Hot work Permit.  the welder needs to understand what is going on around him/her and the company needs to make sure that the welder understands what the hazards are in the area they work.


So what can we derive from the West Texas situation based on the fact that we do not know what caused the fire?  We can still answer the "inevitable questions about whether this tragedy could have been prevented."  There are two factors in play.  Preventing the fire from starting in the first place and protecting the responders when a fire does take place.

Let's focus on the latter, since that's where the lives were lost.  Once there was a fire in a fertilizer plant that uses ammonium nitrate, could the deaths of 12 responders been prevented?

Maybe not...but most likely yes.

That's what bothers me about all this.  It was a simple matter of understanding what was in the building where the fire was taking place.

Next post: West Texas and Ammonium Nitrate: Part 3


West Texas and Ammonium Nitrate: Part 1

I do not want this blog to be political.  That's a difficult task to keep politics out of the conversation.  What I look at and write about is the science behind the decisions and hypothesis.  I do have some "soap box" items that move - or bias - my writing.

First and foremost, what we safety and environmental folks do needs to protect public health, especially worker health, as well as protect the environment.  Second that protection has to be real protection as well as having it based on sound data and analysis.  So if you detect bias in my writing, that is what's driving it.

I set out, since it has been a while - to write on the West Texas explosion from this angle.  What is the science behind the explosion and how can we prevent 12 emergency responders - workers - from getting killed again.  We had just lost two fire fighters in Bryan, Texas, a month ago.  Four guys go in, two get seriously burned and two die.  In West Texas, 12 die.

The way we prevent that from happening is through protocol, training and protective gear. When injury and death occurs, one of those three failed.  One of the hardest things for me to accept, and trust me I tried, is the concept that all worker accidents are preventable.

In West Texas, this was the case for those 12.  It was preventable, and that is what I want to show in these next two or three posts.  Not so much how to prevent it, but why we have the tools in place that will - and in the case of West Texas - should have prevented - or reduced - these deaths.

While doing my research for this post, I came across this:

Governor Perry did not take too kindly to this political cartoon that appeared in the April 25th Sacramento Bee:
"It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon," Perry wrote in his letter to The Bee. "While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won't stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans," he added. (1)
 Jack Ohman, who drew this editorial cartoon, defends it as follows:
The Texas chemical plant had not been inspected by the state of Texas since 2006. That's seven years ago. You may have read in the news that Gov. Perry, during his business recruiting trips to California and Illinois, generally described his state as free from high taxes and burdensome regulation. One of the burdensome regulations he neglected to mention was the fact that his state hadn't really gotten around to checking out that fertilizer plant. Many Texas cities have little or no zoning, resulting in homes being permitted next to sparely inspected businesses that store explosive chemicals.
The Sacramento Bee defends Ohman:
Jack Ohman's cartoon of April 25 made a strong statement about Gov. Rick Perry's disregard for worker safety, and his attempts to market Texas as a place where industries can thrive with few regulations. It is unfortunate that Gov. Perry, and some on the blogosphere, have attempted to interpret the cartoon as being disrespectful of the victims of this tragedy. As Ohman has made clear on his blog, he has complete empathy for the victims and people living by the plant. What he finds offensive is a governor who would gamble with the lives of families by not pushing for the strongest safety regulations. Perry's letter is an attempt to distract people from that message.
Okay...let's look at this objectively.  I live in Texas.  I teach in Texas.  My students come from Texas.  My clients are little mom-and-pops to large chemical and petroleum facilities.  They come to my environmental classes, as well as our OSHA and emergency response and HAZWOPER and fire fighting and confined space classes because they do not want to hurt their employees or mess up the environment.  They want to reduce their liability and comply with the laws and regulations that are currently out there.

These are Texas businesses and Texans who do this.  If we had a culture of "free from" regulation and inspection these companies and employees would have stopped coming to our classes long ago.

Governor Perry is on his third four year term.  We still have the TCEQ (our environmental agency).  We still have the RRC (environmental agency for oil and gas), and we still have the TDSHS (our OSHA agency).  Our we in Texas as stringent as California and New Jersey?  Nope, but that's where that term "burdensome" comes in.  Just because you have strict environmental and safety regulations does not make your population and work force safer.  Case in point is California's Proposition 65 requirement whereby everything you come in contact with is "known to the state to cause cancer."  I also wrote about New Jersey's requirement to have a one in 1,000,000 cancer risk,  That, by the way, is ten times more protective than California's Prop 65.

Do a bunch of conservative Texans want OSHA and the EPA to go away.  Yes, they sure do.  But that's not how most Texans think, nor is it how Governor Perry has behaved, nor is it the reality.  Before I came to Texas I was born, lived, educated, and did the bulk of my environmental career in California.  So I understand this concept a bit better than most:
More regulation does not automatically make one safer.  Lower exposure does not automatically reduce one's health risk.
How do I feel about this cartoon and the comments made?  I'll let you fill in the caption:

Okay, so here we are getting a bit political.  Let's move away from that angle and address this particular comment from Mr. Ohman:
"So when the plant exploded and killed 14 people, people started asking the inevitable questions about whether this tragedy could have been prevented,"
That's a fair question.  Could it have been prevented?

Next post: West Texas and Ammonium Nitrate: Part 2