WASHINGTON DC -- Evidence that the Bush administration killed a proposal to tighten regulation of a group of hazardous chemicals is presented in a new report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, DC based nonprofit group of investigative journalists.
The White House has declined to regulate reactive chemicals despite evidence linking dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries to accidents involving them, according to the report's author Bill Dawson, who before he joined the Center was a 17 year veteran reporter for the "Houston Chronicle."
The shelved proposal deals with a group of materials that can produce runaway reactions when combined. An example of such deadly chemical combinations was a 1995 explosion and fire that claimed five lives at a Lodi, New Jersy plant following the reaction and explosion of sodium hydrosulfite, aluminum powder, potassium carbonate and benzaldehyde.
The Bush administration abandoned a proposal to address such dangers last year, Dawson showed, after the workplace safety standard it was meant to expand appeared on a "hit list" of 57 regulations targeted by business groups who had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Bush presidential campaign. This government list, which came to light last fall, was solicited for White House budget officials.
A spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) told Dawson the agency was "unaware of any industry objections" to the chemical proposal, which OSHA officials had drafted.
But the report quotes "a government source" who told the Center that industry trade groups, including the American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association, all opposed the initiative. Employees of those groups, their member companies and political action committees funded by the groups, contributed more than $216,000 to Bush's presidential campaign.
Eric Frumin, safety and health director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), is quoted in the report as saying the decision to drop the proposal shows how "regulated industries are determining administration policies."
UNITE, which represented workers at the Napp Technologies plant in Lodi, has led efforts by industrial and firefighters unions to get more reactive chemicals covered by the OSHA standard.
Dawson reports that the proposal to regulate the hazardous chemicals was dropped from the pending regulatory initiatives as administration officials were writing President George W. Bush's budget request for 2003. The administration's spending proposal cut OSHA's budget by $7.9 million and eliminated 83 jobs in the workplace safety agency.
The OSHA personnel cuts are being proposed even though evidence has been accumulating that reactive chemicals outside of OSHA's current regulatory standard can pose serious hazards.
The Center's investigation also revealed that an unpublished OSHA study determined that 44 reactive chemicals not currently covered by its standard had been implicated in 408 documented workplace accidents from 1992 through 1997. The incidents resulted in 66 deaths and 404 injuries, including 225 injuries that required hospital treatment.
One of the reactive chemicals that the abandoned OSHA proposal cited for possible regulation, ammonium nitrate, was involved last September in an incident that became France's worst industrial disaster in 50 years.
A stable explosive material used as a commercial safety explosive or as a fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is difficult to ignite unless mixed with other chemicals such as oxiders or nitroglycerine when it becomes highly explosive.
The explosion at a fertilizer factory in Toulouse killed 31 people, injured more than 2,400 and made 500 nearby homes uninhabitable, according to a United Nations report. Atofina, the fertilizer plant's owner, has said an unintended reaction of ammonium nitrate with other chemicals was not likely, but it is being investigated along with other possible causes.
Another reactive chemical that was on the OSHA list for future regulation is toluene diisocyanate, used in the synthesis of polyurethane foams for furniture, bedding and insulation. "Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," toluene diisocyanate "may react violently with water, acids, and alcohols. Contact with bases, such as caustic soda and tertiary amines, may cause uncontrollable polymerization and the rapid evolution of heat," according to the 9th Report on Carcinogens issued by the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, in January 2001.
A series of incidents involving reactive chemicals excluded from the 1992 standard, especially the Napp disaster, prompted six unions to petition OSHA for an emergency rule. In response to the unions' request, OSHA prepared the now abandoned proposal during the late 1990s.
Dawson says that the Clinton administration was expected to issue the proposal, but it remained unpublished at the time of President Bush's inauguration.
After President Bush chose chemical safety expert John Henshaw to head OSHA, a voluntary approach to reactive chemical safety appeared to be on track.
In a draft a copy obtained by the Center, Dawson wrote, several alternative measures were outlined, including one described as "nonregulatory" suggesting an increase in government assistance to employers in lieu of bringing extra chemicals under mandatory rules such as the unions petitioned for.
But even that moderate path was abandoned. On December 3, 2001, a new regulatory agenda posted in the Federal Register contained a terse item saying the reactive chemicals initiative was being dropped because of "resource constraints and other priorities." The notice said the proposal had been withdrawn from consideration on September 24, 2001.
Mark Dudzic, president of a Rahway, New Jersey local of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union was quoted in the Center's report saying, "OSHA has been very ineffective, because [existing] regulations just don't cover these issues."
The union local represented workers at the now closed Morton International facility in Paterson, New Jersey, where a runaway reaction in 1998 injured nine employees, released hazardous chemicals into the community and damaged the plant. This incident occurred 10 miles from the Napp facility where five workers died, and some people worked at both places.
The reactive chemicals issue is "particularly heart-rending" in densely populated New Jersey, Dudzic said in the Center's report. "They could have made some progress here," he said of the abandoned OSHA proposal. Reactive chemicals, he said, "are killing people, and they're going to kill more people."