US safety panel sees urgent need for more chemical regulations

10 February 2014 17:51  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--Chemical Safety Board (CSB) chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said on Monday that “urgent steps” are needed to improve hazardous materials safety, with new laws and regulations that should include inherently safer technology (IST).

Speaking at a House committee hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, Moure-Eraso said that the 10 January chemical leak at the Freedom Industries facility that forced the shutdown of the city’s water supply resulted from inadequate leak prevention measures at the site and regulatory lapses that allowed such tanks to go unregulated by either federal or state officials.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure conducted its first field hearing on the Charleston spill, and in addition to Moure-Eraso heard testimony from five state and local government officials along with the president of Freedom Industries and the head of the water company whose systems were contaminated by the 10 January spill.

In that accident, an estimated 7,500 gal (28,000 litres) of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (4-MCHM) from a Freedom Industries tank on the banks of the Elk river contaminated the water supply of Charleston, the state capital and home to some 300,000 residents.

Use of water from the city’s supply system was barred for three days before being lifted on 13 January.

Freedom Industries, the target of about 20 lawsuits as a result of the spill, declared bankruptcy on 17 January.

The leak is under investigation by the CSB, various West Virginia agencies and state and federal criminal prosecutors.

In addition, the incident has triggered new bipartisan legislation in the US Congress to toughen regulation of above-ground chemical storage tanks.

In his testimony, Moure-Eraso told the panel that preliminary results from CSB’s investigation indicate that the containment measures surrounding the 50-year-old storage tanks at the Freedom Industries site were not sufficient.

He said that a containment wall surrounding the tank that leaked, identified as tank 396, “was composed of cinder blocks and … provided very little protection from a possible release”.

In addition, he said, “Company documents further show that the wall was not lined and that tank 396 rested directly on porous material including gravel and soil”.

Those weaknesses, he said, were compounded by the fact that “there is a gap in the regulatory framework that fails to adequately cover above-ground storage tanks”.

He voiced support for the legislation recently introduced in Congress and said that further protections should be included in reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that is now under way on Capitol Hill.

“It is clear to me,” Moure-Eraso said, “that urgent steps are required to significantly improve the safety of facilities that handle hazardous materials.”

He also called for better use of inherently safer technology, saying that IST is among “the most effective accident prevention measures”.

Referring to IST, Moure-Eraso said that “I realise that is a term that has drawn some controversy, but it is really just an industry-developed concept that focuses on safety in design”.

Some earlier efforts to reform TSCA and the separate Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) have called for a federal mandate for IST in regulating chemicals manufacturing, storage, transit and use. But that issue has been broadly opposed by the US chemicals sector.  

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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