Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Front Line Chemical Workers Call For Chemical Security Legislation

Senator Susan Collilns, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing today on Chemical Facility Security: What Is the Appropriate Federal Role?

Testifying at the Hearing was Glen Erwin who is on the staff of the United Steelworkers. Erwin's union had conducted a survey of facilities and found that:
  • only four out of five high-risk facilities had conducted a reassessment of worksite security since September 11.
  • only three in four sites reported that the company at their site had improved the systems to guard and secure the facilities
  • If the patterns in these data were to hold more broadly among the population of RMP sites, approximately 3,000 sites would still be without reassessment of worksite security and a similar number would have failed to act to improve security.
Erwin also told of visiting a facility that was allowing short-term contract workers on the site without searching their vehicles or knowing what they were bringing with them. His observation is chilling for anyone living near such a facility:
This same facility had a storage tank containing 800,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid. A release of this much hydrofluoric acid would create an enormous catastrophe. A lethal vapor cloud of hydrofluoric acid would extend for miles downwind and reach into one of the most heavily populated metropolitan areas in the country. As we drove past the tank, I watched approximately 50 people working in the area using heavy equipment less than 50 feet from the exposed liquid line leading to the hydrofluoric acid tank.

My tour guide explained that the site was engaged in a “turn-around” and that these people were temporary contract workers. A “turn-around” is the term that describes the periodic shutdown of processing units for major maintenance. I asked if he knew any of these people. He replied, “No, they are just here for three to four weeks.”

As we drove, we discussed what the result would be if by accident, or on purpose, the bulldozer was driven into the liquid line of this tank. His reply was that thousands maybe tens of thousands would be killed.
Erwing also made recommendations for making plants safer. In addition to restricting access to refineries and chemical plants and increasing security around particularly dangerous substances, he recommended making the processes inherently safety through substitutoin. Using the example of Washington D.C.'s Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant that replaced highly hazardous chlorine with sodium hypochlorite only weeks after 9/11, Erwin explained that everyone wasn't getting on board:
In one of our steel plants, the site employed a process using chlorine to treat certain waste streams. The contractor doing the work found it convenient to have as many as fourteen chlorine tanks cars on the site at one time. This quantity of chlorine could have put a major metropolitan area at risk. There was never a need for more than one tank car of chorine at a time. The union fought successfully first to reduce the amount of chlorine stored and later in persuading the company to use a different and safer process that eliminated the use of chlorine all together.

Earlier I spoke about a plant with large volumes of hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid is used as a catalyst in a process called alkylation that chemically joins refining compounds. Alkylation can be carried out with the much more dangerous hydrofluoric acid or with the less dangerous sulfuric acid. Some facilities have become inherently safer by replacing hydrofluoric acid with sulfuric acid. Others have not.
Erwin also criticized companies for not working with their unions to improve security:
In our survey4 (p. 39), 90% of respondents stated their facility had not worked with the local union, or hourly workers about plans or actions to prevent or respond to a possible terrorist attack. The people who know the most about these facilities are the full-time workers who run and maintain them. We are astounded that in the vast majority of cases these people have not been included in addressing chemical plant security and safety issues related to a possible terrorist attack.

If workers are neither informed nor involved before an incident happens, how can there possibly be effective preventative systems in place? How could workers possibly contribute their vast knowledge, experience and skills to prevention, preparedness or response?
We firmly believe that the lack of union or worker involvement in preventing terrorist attacks means that the systems are broken and in desperate need of repair.
Finally Erwin made the case for federal chemical plant security regulations that would mandate high-level security measures—fences, guards, etc. but with its main focus on requiring inherently safer processes and minimizing the storage of highly hazardous chemicals. Even though many plants had made an effort to increase security,
We ask, is some improvement in some areas by some companies enough? With what is at stake, we all know the answer is an emphatic no. Workers and members of our communities should not be placed at risk because some companies either have other priorities or choose to ignore the possibility of an attack. The phrase, “this will never happen to us,” should be erased from our vocabulary.

Responsible companies should not be placed at an economic disadvantage because they allocate resources to address the threats we face.
The American Chemical Council also testified at the hearing. Faced with more and more states passing their own chemical security legislation, the ACC has come out in favor of national chemical security legislation, although it relies on guns, guards and gates, rather than inherently safer processes. Inherent safety is a great idea, they say, but leave it to them, not to government regulations. The problem with inherent safety, according to the ACC is risks can be shifted or substituted, rather than reduced overall, trading one risk for another:
For example, advocates of inherent safety frequently speak of reducing onsite inventories, or reducing or eliminating storage, of hazardous materials. By reducing inventories, though, a facility may increase the number of truck shipments through the plant’s neighborhood. Similarly, replacing a low temperature, low pressure process that uses a toxic chemical with a process that uses a less toxic chemical, but operates at higher temperatures and pressure, increases the potential hazard to its workers.
In other words, it's far too complicated for mere mortals (or politicians or bureacrats) to legislate; trust us. We'll do the best we can.
In the final analysis, ACC firmly believes that judgments about inherent safety are fundamentally process safety decisions that must ultimately be left to the process safety professionals. We will remain concerned about legislation that would enable government officials focused on security to second-guess process safety decisions.
The ACC also made no mention of working with their unions or front line employees. The Department of Homeland Security, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency would be the ACC's preferred enforcer.

The Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) was not as willing to accept federal legislation and regulations as the ACC. SOCMA is mostly made up of smaller companies that perform "batch" operations, rather than large chemical processes. A typical SOCMA plant may mix a batch of chemicals one week and a completely different batch the next. A refinery or pesticide plant, on the other hand, is generally much larger and runs pretty much the same continuous process 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Because SOCMA members may use different chemicals every week, it would be too hard for a terrorist to plan an attack. In other words the big ACC guys are more dangerous than us smaller SOCMA guys, and "one size fits all" regulations won't work, regulate them, not us.

At most, SOCMA recommends only that the Department of Homeland Security require facilities to:
  • Perform a risk screen based on potential consequences of an attack and attractiveness as a target
  • If found to be at risk, perform a detailed vulnerability analysis
  • Develop plans to enhance security, according to the risks and vulnerabilities that have been identified
  • Develop a site security plan that contains the plans for enhancements and includes standard operating procedures and policies pertaining to security
I have added the emphasis. Note the focus on "plans" and the absence of "action." Oh, and all of these plans remain with the company, to be released to DHS only upon request. In other words, there's no approval process.

Other witnesses included Gerald Poje, formerly of the Chemical Safety Board, Carol L. Andress, Environmental Defense, and Bob Slaughter, President , National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

You can also watch the hearing here. I haven't had time. If you do, and want to report on the Q&A for Confined Space, you know where to find me.

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