September 12, 2008

Faster Accident Reporting Urged

By Ken Ward Jr.

Chemical plants and other factories would have to report explosions, leaks and other major accidents within 15 minutes, under legislation Gov. Joe Manchin plans to introduce.

Manchin plans to push for the change in response to delays by Bayer CropScience in releasing information about the Aug. 28 explosion and fire at the company's Institute chemical plant.

The legislation would expand to other industries a 15-minute reporting requirement Manchin instituted for coal-mining accidents after the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006.

Jimmy Gianato, Manchin's homeland security director, announced the proposal Thursday morning during a public meeting in which various emergency agencies reviewed the response to the Bayer incident.

Gianato said that the governor plans to ask companies to begin voluntarily reporting incidents within 15 minutes until the Legislature can write the requirement into state law.

"We want to make sure that information comes in and gets out to the responders and the public," Gianato said.

One Bayer worker was killed and another seriously injured in the explosion and fire in a unit that makes the pesticide Larvin. Thousands of area residents were advised to take shelter in their homes because of possible fumes from the fire.

County emergency managers, area firefighters and local police officers all continued Thursday to criticize Bayer for repeatedly refusing to quickly provide details about what had happened at the plant.

Bayer waited more than 90 minutes to tell local officials where in the plant the incident had occurred and what chemicals might have been released. The company did not formally report the 10:25 p.m. incident to federal and local agencies for two hours.

With little information from Bayer, local authorities waited more than an hour to issue the shelter-in-place advisory, a decision that angered Institute-area residents.

Much of Thursday's 2 1/2-hour meeting again focused attention on Bayer. Officials from agency after agency stood up and complained about sending responders into the area with no idea what had been released.

"The plant could have said, 'we know it was located in this part of the plant. We know this is what's in that part of the plant. This is what it could be,'" said St. Albans Police Chief Joe Crawford. "That would be better than getting nothing."

Dale Petry, emergency services chief for Kanawha County, said that the county would no longer wait for chemical company information before warning residents to take shelter in their homes.

In the future, Petry said he would issue a shelter-in-place advisory if companies don't provide more detailed information within 10 minutes after an incident.

For years, Kanawha Valley residents have complained about not getting timely and accurate information from area companies and emergency officials when chemical plants have explosions, leaks or fires.

Congress tried to fix these problems in 1986, with landmark legislation passed after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, and a much smaller leak at the company's sister plant in Institute. The 1986 law required companies to "immediately" notify state, local and federal authorities of releases of certain amounts of certain toxic materials.

Manchin's 2006 mine safety reform legislation required Gianato to study adding the state's 15-minute reporting requirement for other industries.

Various business groups - including the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Business and Industry Council - vigorously opposed expanding the reporting requirement beyond the coal industry, according to comment letters included in Gianato's Nov. 1, 2006, report to Manchin and legislative leaders.

"What is a reasonable reporting obligation for one individual industrial activity may not be appropriate for another," wrote Karen Price, chairwoman of BIC. "Trying to anticipate all potential inclusions and exclusions would create a regulatory nightmare for both [the Division of Homeland Security] and industry."

At the time, Gianato recommended that other industries not be added to the system, but that the matter be considered for further study.

Gianato said Thursday that the governor now believes that the federal requirement to "immediately" notify government officials about chemical accidents is not specific enough. Applying the 15- minute requirement will make things more clear, he said.

Since December 2006, 14 coal operations have been cited for violating the new reporting requirement. As required by law, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training fined each $100,000. Seven of those fines are under appeal, while five have been overturned on appeal. Two companies have paid the $100,000 fine, state officials said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at [email protected] or 348-1702.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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