Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Chem Board Recommends Revisions of NY Fire Code

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard investigation Board recommended today that New York City revise its 85 year old fire code to include modern developments in hazardous materials management. The recommendations resulted from an investigation of the April 25, 2002 explosion at Kaltech Industries in the Chelsea section of Manhattan that injured 36 people, including 14 members of the public and six firefighters.
The blast erupted in the basement, where a commercial sign-making company stored hazardous chemicals and was mixing incompatible waste -- nitric acid and lacquer thinner, investigators said.

The explosion came just seven months after the World Trade Center attack, fraying the nerves of a still-rattled city. The building facade collapsed onto West 19th Street, and people on upper floors had to break windows and jump to safety after the explosion sent flames up the elevator shaft and a stairwell.
The report also noted that neither the NY state Department of Environmental Conservation, nor the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had ever inspected the company.

The actual cause was a witch's brew of chemical mismanagement and faulty oversight," said Gerald Poje, a safety board commissioner.


"Dangerous chemicals are prolific in New York York City," he said, and the board's investigation has revealed a "gaping hole in the city's chemical safety net."

The city's fire code, for example, was written in 1918 and is so outdated that it does not even prohibit the mixing of incompatible chemicals in manufacturing facilities, according to the report.

"We need a much more aggressive updating of the city's fire code," Poje said.
The incident could have been much more serious as it occurred in the middle of a commercial and residential area. In addition, several workers were trapped in the building and would likely have died if the sprinkler system had not extinguished the fire.

The Board also issued a recommendation that OSHA Region II (which covers New York and New Jersey) and the NY Fire Department that it establish a "referral program" where the fire department would refer to OSHA possible health and safety violations during the course of its inspections. The fire department visits almost all NY businesses that use hazardous chemicals, while OSHA rarely visits most small businesses.

NYCOSH Director Joel Shufro and Philip Weinberg, who teaches environmental law at St. John's University, published an article in Newsday pointing out that while explosions like Kaltech are bad enough, "the potential for arson and intentional releases of chemicals by terrorists is far greater." They point out that
The city requires companies to use alternative substances and equipment to reduce the presence of dangerous toxics. So do state regulations, which dovetail with the city's. And city law says risk-management plans must at least consider using less toxic substances.

But little has been done to enforce these rules. The city has never penalized a facility for filing an insufficient risk-management plan or mandated a reduction in toxic materials. The law should be strengthened to require that quantities of toxic chemicals be reduced wherever possible, with meaningful penalties for those who disobey.

The accidental release of a pesticide chemical in Bhopal, India, in 1984 resulted in thousands of deaths, so we know how devastating toxic discharges can be. A counterterrorism expert, Rand Beers, recently pointed out that "chemical plants have a vulnerability which has a catastrophic characteristic ... that could approximate the World Trade Center."
More articles on the Kaltech Report can be found here and here

You can view a live broadcast of the hearing here. The full text of the report will be available here in a few days.