Date: SUN 12/21/86
Section: 3
Page: 9
Edition: 2 STAR

Houston-area plants cited for violations


Federal inspectors have cited four chemical plants in the Houston area and Port Arthur for potentially life-threatening violations they discovered in a special yearlong program inspired by the toxic gas leaks at Bhopal , India, and Institute, W. Va.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found "serious" violations - defined as problems with "a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result" - at Mobay Chemical Corp. in Baytown, Fina Oil & Chemical Co. in Port Arthur, and PPG Industries and Dow Chemical Co. in La Porte.

OSHA is also accusing Mobay of one "willful" violation because respiratory protective equipment was not required or worn by employees while they "visually" investigated reported leaks of phosgene, one of the deadliest chemicals made.

The agency defines a "willful" violation as one in which an employer knew an action was a violation or knew a hazardous condition existed and made no reasonable effort to eliminate it.

Mobay, Fina and PPG are contesting all or part of their citations. Dow earlier paid a $560 fine for one "serious" violation, and OSHA downgraded a second "serious" allegation after consulting with the company.

The one-year pilot program is winding down now, with no more inspections planned in Texas, but it may be extended next year. The inspections marked OSHA's major response to public and congressional concerns about the possibility of catastrophic gas leaks following the Bhopal and Institute incidents.

A report on the program's nationwide results is scheduled to be sent to Congress next month. Because only 40 of about 12,000 chemical manufacturing facilities were inspected, OSHA does not consider the results to be representative of the entire industry, said spokesman Akio Konoshima. He would not say whether OSHA will seek to extend the program.

Randal P. Schumacher, health and safety director of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, said he thinks it will run at least another year, and added that CMA has no objection to an extension. The program has helped both the industry and OSHA, he said, and has made progress toward allaying "a legitimate public concern."

On the upper Texas coast, OSHA inspectors have conducted four-to-five-month investigations of operations involving one dangerous chemical at each of nine plants. The agency used a European ranking of toxic hazards to select the chemicals produced in this area that would pose the greatest potential dangers in accidental gas leaks.

Of the nine inspections, results have been made public from five. The chemicals that were investigated were phosgene at Mobay, PPG and Dow, hydrogen sulfide at Fina, and chlorine at a plant in La Porte that Diamond Shamrock Chemical Co. operated during the inspection, and Occidental Chemical Co. runs now.

OSHA officials in Washington are still reviewing the inspectors' findings concerning hydrogen sulfide at Shell Chemical's Deer Park plant and acrylonitrile at DuPont's Beaumont plant.

Investigations are continuing into chlorine operations at Occidental (formerly Diamond Shamrock) in Deer Park and the acrylonitrile process at Sterling Chemical Co. (formerly Monsanto) in Texas City.

The individual chemical processes that were inspected at the nine plants underwent scrutiny far more intensive than the safety and industrial hygiene inspections OSHA normally conducts.

Regular OSHA inspections last two to three days and cover an entire plant. Jack Fontaine of the Houston OSHA office said officials spent more than ten times that long at just one unit of each plant that received a special inspection.

Inspectors focused on safety systems that would prevent or limit a catastrophic release to the air, including pressure-relief equipment, vessels that contain escaping toxic chemicals and devices that monitor leaks, Fontaine said.

Among the "serious" violations OSHA says it found, the agency alleges:

At Fina and Mobay, valves were not properly locked open. If they were closed accidentally, OSHA said, it could have created conditions leading to the release of potentially dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals - hydrogen sulfide at Fina and phosgene at Mobay. (Dow paid its fine for a similar valve-related violation.)

Mobay did not maintain continuous automatic monitoring to detect phosgene, chlorine and carbon monoxide leaks in certain areas.

At PPG, workers filled a phosgene cylinder without making sure there was no material inside that might react with the chemical and cause a leak to the air. According to the company, that was the reason for a leak in March that prompted the evacuation of about 100 people near the plant. OSHA was inspecting at the time.

Respirators were not provided at Fina in an area where workers might be exposed to toxic levels of hydrogen sulfide, and an emergency respirator at PPG's phosgene unit did not work properly.

At the former Diamond Shamrock plant in La Porte, OSHA dropped the only allegation of a "serious" violation after consulting with the company.

PPG plant manager E.G. "Henry" Ramirez said his company paid a $360 fine for its respirator violation, but added that the problem was "an inherent defect in design." PPG is contesting the violation involving the phosgene cylinder's refilling because it disagrees with OSHA over proper control measures, he said. OSHA is proposing a $420 fine for the violation.

Hood Barnwell, employee relations manager at the Fina plant, acknowledged that three valves were not locked open as they should have been, but the company contends a proposed $800 fine is too high. The company is disputing the respirator allegations - which could bring a $1500 fine - but is making changes to prevent worker exposure to toxic fumes, he said.

Martin Heifele, Mobay plant manager, declined to comment on the violations alleged at that plant because the company is contesting the matter. OSHA is proposing a $10,000 fine because workers checked for leaks without respirators, and $1500 in fines for violations involving two valves and inadequate leak monitoring.

In addition, OSHA said it found record-keeping violations at each of the five plants where inspection results have been released. By far the biggest fine proposed was $184,000 for 46 such violations at Fina. The company is contesting the fine, which OSHA based on an allegation that the violations were "willful."

OSHA officials would not comment on the significance of the special inspections, pending the report to Congress, but the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Schumacher said both chemical companies and the agency have benefited from the experience.

The industry is always trying to improve safety and was helped when OSHA inspectors pointed out areas they thought needed addressing, such as a need for better record-keeping related to worker safety and health, Schumacher said.

At the same time, OSHA officials gained considerable expertise in chemical processes, which they lacked before the program and which will help them in the future, he said. With this new knowledge, inspectors "can home in on plants that are substandard and need to be improved."