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Little progress seen on chemical safety plan

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the U.S. Chemical Safety Board prepares to release another report expected to criticize plant operations in the Kanawha Valley, local health department officials are concerned about the lack of progress on the board's recommendation for a new program aimed at preventing leaks, fires and explosions at area plants.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said he's worried the board's recommendation hasn't gone anywhere since it was first proposed more than six months ago.

"Every day that is lost places people working there and living in these neighborhoods at risk," Gupta said in an interview Wednesday.

Gupta supports the CSB's January 2011 recommendation that his agency work through the existing authority of the state Department of Health and Human Resources to develop a Kanawha Valley chemical plant safety program.

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.

CSB investigators said the safety program could be modeled after a highly successful one in Contra Costa County, Calif. Generally, such a program would require companies to submit safety plans, require regular government safety audits of plants, and give the public a greater say in monitoring safety performance at local companies. The program could be funded by a fee paid by companies that make, use and store dangerous chemicals.

Gupta expects the CSB to reaffirm its recommendation this morning, when it releases its report on a series of accidents at the DuPont Belle plant in January 2010, including a phosgene leak that killed longtime plant worker Danny Fish.

"They seem to think the recommendation of having a safety prevention program still stands," Gupta said after being briefed by the board on its DuPont report.

Late last month, DHHR Secretary Dr. Michael J. Lewis told the CSB that his agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection had determined not to move forward at this point on the board's recommendation.

CSB officials had recommended using the DHHR's existing authority to write regulations to govern workplace hazards. But in a June 30 letter to the CSB, Lewis said his agency and DEP believe they don't have legal authority to help create a local chemical accident prevention program.

"We came to a consensus that we did not, at this time, have the expertise in-house to draft the appropriate legislation that would be needed to develop the type of program suggested in your report," wrote Lewis, a physician and former Union Carbide chemical engineer.

"Therefore, we will jointly approach our governor and our Legislature during the next regular legislative session to provide funding for a study of the successful legislative initiatives from around the country," Lewis wrote. "We will also ask that the expert provide us with model language which could be used to implement a program tailored for the needs of West Virginia residents and businesses."

Gupta said he is concerned this approach will take too long.

"I would like for them to be a little more aggressive, a little more sort of pro-active," Gupta said.

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


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