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Chemical rule plan creates challenge

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Kanawha Valley leaders on Thursday night tentatively embraced the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's recommendation for a new program aimed at preventing leaks, fires and explosions at chemical plants.

Local government and public health officials, organized labor, and citizen groups spoke in favor of the proposal, which could lead to adoption of the toughest safety regulations in the nation.

But they also worried about paying for engineers and other experts to conduct safety audits, and wondered if local chemical companies would support the plan.

"I don't think it's going to be very difficult to develop a program," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. "The real question is are people going to play."

Board members recommended that Gupta's agency take on the task of developing the new program, modeled on a highly successful chemical safety law in Contra Costa County, Calif.

The proposal was the central recommendation in the CSB's long-awaited final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

Generally, such a proposal would require companies to submit safety plans, require regular government safety audits of plans, and give the public a greater say in monitoring safety performance at local companies. Theoretically, the program would be funded by a fee paid by companies that make, use and store dangerous chemicals.

And in a change from draft reports circulated earlier in the day, the board at Thursday night's meeting said it wanted the Kanawha health department to take on the duty of policing chemical safety across West Virginia.

Board members want the local agency to work with the state Department of Health and Human Resources to develop the plan, but take the lead on it statewide.

Board members unanimously approved the recommendation Thursday evening at a public meeting attended by more than 150 people at West Virginia State University.

"I believe it's an important thing to do," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. "We ought to do everything we can to try to implement it."

But Carper said it's not that easy, and that the proposal could face significant political hurdles.

"It's going to take the support of the Legislature and it's going to take the support of the industry," he said. "The problem will be gaining unified support between industry, the public and government."

Steve Hedrick, Bayer's plant manager, said his company is reviewing the board's report and is "committed to cooperating with the board on the next steps," but did not specifically endorse the new accident prevention program.

Joe Davenport, health and safety director for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents Bayer's hourly employees, urged all sides to come together to deal with safety operations and with keeping the plant economically viable.

"The workers at the plant want to work safely, and we certainly don't want to hurt the people who live in the community," Davenport said.

Maya Nye, spokeswoman for the group People Concerned About MIC, said she hopes that the recommendation could lead to easier access for citizens to vital information about chemical facilities near their homes.

"This information should not be kept under lock and key away from the people whose backyards these dangerous chemicals are kept in," Nye said. "People have a right to now what dangers exist in their community."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.

 


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