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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chemical Safety Board plagued by bad news

The Chemical Safety Board is bogged down
by internal troubles and incomplete reports.
The independent agency that investigates chemical accidents is under fire from seemingly every corner of the government—from the White House on down.

The White House is reviewing a damning inspector general report against the head of the Chemical Safety Board, Rafael Moure-Eraso.

Members of Congress also are unhappy, with several committees on the case. And there's a federal investigation into the leaked identity of an agency whistleblower.

It's yet another bit of unwanted attention for the board, which has been beset for years by accelerating internal troubles, shoddy morale, and a backlog of incomplete reports.

A controversial motion passed late in the night at a recent meeting in California has only added fuel to the fire, since it appears to close observers and insiders that it wipes out a number of reforms while consolidating power in the chairman's office.

"It's a stunning turn of events … that has very much upended the staff," said one CSB employee, who spoke under the condition of anonymity to protect their job. "Things are just not getting better."

Moure-Eraso's tenure ends in June, but he may not make it that long. An as-yet unreleased report by the EPA inspector general accuses the chairman and two top agency officials of violating the Federal Records Act by using outside email systems to conduct official government business and not capturing those emails in the agency system.

EPA IG Arthur Elkins Jr. outlined the findings to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week. A new subpanel covering environmental and energy issues, along with the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, are looking at the CSB.

The findings were referred to the White House, which is reviewing the report.

The IG report—which could be released by the Oversight Committee as early as this week—is the result of a winding investigation in which CSB was accused of stonewalling investigators and refusing to turn over documents.

In a statement, CSB spokesman Hillary Cohen said the latest report related to emails sent before 2013 that were transferred to a federal records system 18 months ago. Cohen said CSB would be "providing guidance to all employees on the use of personal email that might relate to CSB business, since it appears this has been a common practice among various current and former CSB board members and staff."

The use of personal email is not necessarily a violation if the emails are forwarded and stored on an official system, which makes them searchable by inspectors and subject to the Freedom of Information Act (every agency crafts their own compliance plans for the Federal Records Act).

But the use of personal emails for official business can raise red flags and feeds into a deeper concern about CSB management's penchant for consolidating power at the expense of other staff and board members.

The latest and most egregious move by senior officials, critics say, was a 22-page motion passed by board member Manuel Ehrlich just weeks into his new position.

Late last month, the board presented its long-awaited final findings and safety recommendations from a 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, Calif., and took public comments at an evening meeting there for four hours.

Near the end of the meeting, Ehrlich introduced a motion that would, in essence, consolidate power with Moure-Eraso and wipe out a number of reforms made under a Justice Department order.

Mark Griffon—the third member on the short-handed board—tried to table the unexpected motion in order to at least give him more time to read it (it had not been announced in any public documents).

With no one to second the motion, Griffon was outvoted and quickly saw his share of power in the agency drop.

The "California coup," as one observer called it, scrubs a number of reforms meant to balance power between the chairman and other board members, such as requirements that the chairman consult on hiring decisions, designations to the Senior Executive Service, and expenditures over $50,000.

Some staff members don't see the motion as simple housecleaning, saying it consolidates power with Moure-Eraso and two top officials, general counsel Richard Loeb and managing director Daniel Horowitz.

The Ehrlich order also ended investigations into a pair of accidents at the Silver Eagle refinery in Utah, releases of hydrofluoric acid from the CITGO Corpus Christi refinery that began in 2009, and a 2010 zinc fire at a Horsehead facility in Pennsylvania.

The board had issued technical reports and recommendations in the Silver Eagle and CITGO cases, while the Horsehead facility in question has closed. Ehrlich said in California that there was "no realistic opportunity" for a more comprehensive agency report.

The agency currently has 12 investigations listed as open and its investigative backlog has long been a sore point.

All that, said a former staff member familiar with the board motion, adds up to an agency where "productivity is poor, attrition is high and work just doesn't get done." The three closed cases, the staffer said, were just more proof of CSB coming up short in its mission.

Source: National Journal. Please note that the original text has been edited for length.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Unmitigated dust becomes explosion hazard: OSHA

Combustible dust may become a
hazard that employers need to control.
Combustible dust left uncontrolled or suspended in the air can explode, which was one of many safety hazards discovered after an inspection at the Thomas Moore Feed facility in Navasota, Texas, by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA inspectors found 18 violations and proposed a penalty of $58,100.

The agency's Houston North Area Office did its inspection in September 2014 following a complaint. OSHA cited Thomas Moore Feed for not protecting workers from a potential dust explosion; allowing openings in the dust collection exhaust path of the hammer mill; failing to keep dust accumulations below 1/8 inch in a priority area; not maintaining a functioning monitoring device on the dust collector or making repairs to the dust collector; and not having an adequate dust emission source.

"Airborne grain dust in the right concentration can become explosive and must be properly controlled by ventilation, proper housekeeping to control dust accumulations and other effective means, which this employer failed to do," said Josh Flesher, acting area director for OSHA's Houston North Area Office.

The serious violations include failure to guard belts, pulleys, chains and sprockets less than 7 feet from the ground or platform; evaluate permit-required confined spaces; and outline procedures to prevent the unintended startup of machinery.

A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Three other violations involve failing to document forklift training; not identifying names on locks when a crew performs service or maintenance; and not providing information to employees wearing respirators.

ST Feed Mill, doing business as Thomas Moore Feed, specializes in manufacturing animal feed and employs about 35 workers at the Navasota facility.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit OSHA.

Source: OSHA

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Friday, February 20, 2015

IBM to settle toxic spill suit

Company and plaintiffs announce a settlement over TCE releases from the former plant

The settlement ends a six-year saga.
IBM Corp. will settle a lawsuit brought by 1,000 plaintiffs who alleged that toxic spills from the company's former Endicott manufacturing plant caused illnesses and deaths, damaged property values and hurt businesses.

Both sides announced the settlement without revealing details of the agreement.

"IBM and the plaintiffs' counsel have reached this agreement in an effort to resolve these cases without further burdensome and expensive litigation," said the joint statement from the litigants.

The settlement brings to a close a more-than six-year saga in which IBM and those who claim they were harmed by the toxic releases waged a fierce legal battle on monetary rewards.

Affected residents, in a multi-million-dollar liability lawsuit against IBM, claimed the company should pay for the damage caused to residents around what once was the company's main domestic manufacturing facility.

From 1935 to the mid-1980s, IBM used TCE (trichloroethylene) to clean metal parts in degreasers at its industrial campus in the Village of Endicott. In 1979, the company discovered some of the TCE had pooled in groundwater beneath the facility and appeared to be migrating.

Soil vapor intrusion

Contamination from soil vapor intrusion was detected by the late 1990s, and by 2002, IBM began testing the air at the request of state health and environmental agencies. Basement ventilation systems were eventually installed in more than 400 homes.

Settlement negotiations between the parties began last July, when state Supreme Court Justice Ferrous D. Lebous requested that representatives of both sides start meeting about an out-of-court settlement. Negotiations were apparently successful, culminating with Tuesday night's release that the parties agreed to a settlement that satisfied both sides.

Lawyers of those who brought the suit against IBM said they will conduct meetings with clients over the coming weeks to present terms of the settlement.

IBM representatives said the company will continue the environmental cleanup that has been ongoing since the widening toxic plume was discovered.

Pumps spread throughout Endicott pull pollution from the ground through structures called recovery wells.

Over time, these wells have grown in number from four to more than 22, and to date, they have recovered more than 815,000 pounds of trichloroethylene and other toxic chemicals, with an unknown amount remaining beneath the village.

Company officials have never publicly explained IBM's role in the disaster, and their legal position was that the company always handled chemicals responsibly and in accordance with standards of the day.

They have not denied their former operations were a primary contributor to the pollution. They have not admitted it, either, nor have they offered a detailed explanation of the source of the problem.

Cleaning up industrial solvents

Representatives of the company said it was cleaning up the solvents from multiple industries that have operated in the region's industrial corridor for generations. Endicott was also home to the vast shoe manufacturing empire of Endicott Johnson Corp., once the region's largest employer.

However, the toxic-liability suit named only IBM as the source of the chemicals that tainted parts of Endicott's commercial district and nearby residences.

IBM sold the 140-acre campus to Huron Real Estate Associates in 2002. Current tenants include i3 Electronics (formerly Endicott Interconnect), BAE Systems and Binghamton University, among others.

Lawyers for IBM have long contended it was following the responsible path, picking up the sizable costs for cleaning the spill and providing venting systems for properties designated at-risk for vapor intrusion.

Both sides scored initial victories as the case wound its way through the courts. Lower courts ruled against IBM's motion to have the case dismissed, and ruled in favor of a plaintiff's motion to have charges of negligence — the underpinnings of the case — tried before a jury.

But lower court rulings also eliminated or limited some aspects of the litigation, including the charge that the pollution constitutes a trespass in all cases, and the claim that IBM should be held accountable for monitoring the medical condition of all plaintiffs, including non-property owners.

IBM was also able to limit claims for medical monitoring to only people claiming other damages, such as illness or property loss. That eliminated claims for a potentially large group of plaintiffs — renters and children, for example — who may have been exposed but did not develop illnesses or suffer property damage.

Source: PressConnects

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