Federal Agency Calls for Oversight after Atofina Investigation

The July 14, 2001, chemical explosion and fire at ATOFINA Chemicals Inc. is likely to have a nationwide effect.

The National Transportation Safety Board called last week for the development of federal safety requirements for loading and unloading railroad tank cars, highway cargo tanks and other bulk containers.The recommendation comes after an investigation into the cause of the accident that killed three workers at the plant on West Jefferson Avenue.Nine workers also were injured and about 2,500 people were evacuated from homes in the surrounding area when fire erupted on a 25,000-gallon railroad tank car full of methyl mercaptan.A number of residents continue to experience health problems from exposure to the chemical, used to produce agricultural and pharmaceutical products.The NTSB investigation determined that a fractured cargo transfer pipe was the probable cause of the accident because ATOFINA did not "adequately inspect and maintain its cargo transfer equipment."It also found that inadequate federal oversight of loading and unloading operations involving hazardous materials could have contributed to the accident.Emergency shutdown measures and personal protection requirements at similar facilities across the country also could be addressed in the new federal regulations.The investigation of ATOFINA’s Riverview plant found that the workers were not wearing self-contained breathing apparatus and were instructed to detect any release of methyl mercaptan strictly by odor.Also, the only way to shut off the chemical release was with a manual valve on top of the tank car.No remote cutoff switch had been installed at the plant.

The NTSB investigates all serious transportation, pipeline or hazardous materials accidents, and spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said the deaths, injuries and evacuations qualified the accident as such.

Lopatkiewicz said, however, that the U.S. Department of Transportation is not obligated to follow the recommendation.

"Under law, they have to respond to us in 90 days," he said. "But there isn’t any requirement that they make a decision in that time."

Part of the NTSB recommendations include having the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration help to develop the safety requirements.

If the recommendations are accepted, a rulemaking period would follow.

Paul Lipsitz, spokesman for the Riverview plant, said he was not sure what effect the recommendations would have on the facility.

"But clearly, anything that can help us improve the plant and safety are welcome," he said. "Basically, it’s one more learning tool to make the operations safer and better."

In May, ATOFINA agreed to a $6.2 million settlement after an investigation conducted under the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act found similar safety and operational deficiencies.

Most of the settlement, the second largest monetary sanction in the state, was allocated to resolving the violations and enhancing safety measures.

Riverview Mayor Tim Durand said deficiencies at the plant, which has operated in the city for more than 100 years, already had been acknowledged.

"And ATOFINA redoubled their efforts to improve their manufacturing and safety efforts there," he said. "It’s unfortunate that lives were lost, but I think overall it’s going to be a safer operation."

The NTSB also recommends that the EPA, OSHA and the Federal Railroad Administration issue bulletins to warn companies involved in tank car loading and unloading operations that tank car excess flow valves cannot be relied on to stop leaks.

These facilities are to be asked to instead identify and implement other measures to stop an uncontrolled chemical release if a transfer line fails during tank car loading and unloading.

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