Political Correction

A Disastrous Century: Regulations And Worker Safety Since The Triangle Fire

March 24, 2011 2:23 pm ET

In the century since the Triangle Factory Fire, scores of industrial accidents have killed and injured thousands. Below is Political Correction's list of the 11 most significant industrial disasters since the Triangle Fire, in human and regulatory terms. The pattern that emerges from this list is as predictable as it is infuriating: in the pursuit of profits, private companies willfully cut corners — endangering both human workers and the natural environment — until and unless there are rules to prevent that bad behavior, and an effective regulatory "cop on the beat" to enforce those rules. As they wage a political war against the very concept of business regulations, Republicans would do well to remember the lessons learned in the tragedies below.

This is part of a series of items Political Correction is publishing in conjunction with the Cry Wolf Project on the history and legacy of the Triangle Fire in commemoration of its 100th anniversary this Friday.

Hawk's Nest Tunnel: At least 764 dead

Texas City Port Explosion: Approx. 4,000 casualties

Consol No. 9 Mine Disaster: 78 dead

Sunshine Silver Mine Fire: 91 dead

L'Ambiance Plaza Building Collapse: 28 dead

Exxon Valdez Spill: 11M-30M gallons of crude spilled

Phillips 66 Explosion: 23 dead

Imperial Foods Fire: 25 dead

BP Refinery Explosion: 15 dead

Upper Big Branch Mine Collapse: 29 dead

Deepwater Horizon Drilling Disaster: 11 dead

1927-1935 — Hawk's Nest Tunnel

Gauley Bridge, WV: 700-1,500 dead (est.)

"The number of workers who died of acute silicosis within five years of working in the tunnel is estimated to be 764 (of whom 581 were black), although the exact figure will never be known."

The Globe and Mail

Deadly Dust: Union Carbide, Corporate Mining, And Silicosis

Expert On Hawk's Nest Tunnel Conservatively Estimates 764 Workers Died Within Five Years Of Working On The Tunnel. In a review of Martin Cherniack's The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster, the Globe and Mail wrote:

In a remote corner of West Virginia, a three-mile tunnel, carved through a mountain more than 50 years ago, conceals a grim secret. The men who built the tunnel became the innocent victims of what is unquestionably the worst industrial disaster in the history of the United States. The number of workers who died of acute silicosis within five years of working in the tunnel is conservatively estimated to be 764 (of whom 581 were black), although the exact figure will never be known. In this shocking book, Martin Cherniack, an assistant professor of occupational medicine at Yale University, tells the grisly story of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel. It isn't the full story; key participants have died, taking their secrets with them, and, for a variety of reasons, important documents have disappeared. But the results of Cherniack's dogged research tell us all we need to know about the almost-forgotten disaster. His estimate of the fatalities is considerably higher than those made at the time, but there's no reason to doubt it; his epidemiological research is meticulously documented. [The Globe and Mail, 1/8/87, via Nexis, emphasis added]

Silicosis Is A Lung Disease Caused By Exposure To Silica Dust. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Silicosis is a respiratory disease caused by breathing in (inhaling) silica dust. ... Silica is a common, naturally-occurring crystal. It is found in most rock beds and forms dust during mining, quarrying, tunneling, and working with many metal ores. Silica is a main part of sand, so glass workers and sand-blasters are also exposed to silica. [...] Intense exposure to silica can cause disease within a year, but it usually takes at least 10 - 15 years of exposure before symptoms occur. Silicosis has become less common since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created regulations requiring the use of protective equipment, which limits the amount of silica dust workers inhale." [NLM.NIH.gov, accessed 3/20/11]

1986 Los Angeles Times Story Estimated "More Than 1,500" Workers Died Because Drilling Company Neglected To Provide For Worker Safety. According to the Los Angeles Times:

At age 81, H. Metheney still vividly recalls the thick swirls of choking, white dust that condemned more than 1,500 men to lingering, agonizing deaths and branded this community the "Town of the Living Dead."

Metheney, who lives in Deep Water, is one of the last survivors of the construction of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel in the early 1930s. [...]

The tunnel was commissioned by Union Carbide, which hired Rinehart & Dennis Construction Co. of Charlottesville, Va., to do the work. The project diverted the New River from Hawk's Nest to a power station in Gauley Bridge, with the power going to a Carbide subsidiary's smelting plant.

For more than two years, work crews hacked and blasted a 56-foot-wide corridor through the mountain. Along the way, they drilled through almost pure silica -- a glassy substance found in sand and quartz.

Metheney, who ran a 120-pound drill for about seven months in 1930, said no protection was provided from the dust and other pollution in the tunnel. The air was so foul, he said, that workers were carted out by the dozens and lined up in rows in the open air to recover.

When they revived, the men were ordered back into the tunnel by company guards, Metheney said.

"If you didn't go back in, you didn't have a job," he said. "They could keep getting men to do it, and to do it cheap. Nothing was done about taking care of the men."

Within months, workers began to fall sick with hacking coughs and searing chest pains. The warning signs were ignored.

The tunnel's width was even expanded to cash in on the rich silica deposits, which were so pure that they could be used without refining at a nearby alloy plant.

Metheney said a local physician, H. R. Harless was alarmed and puzzled by the increasing number of fatalities attributed to pneumonia and tuberculosis. He began to suspect that the men were dying of silicosis.

"Doc Harless had a man's lungs there after an autopsy. They was so solid, you couldn't stick a penknife in 'em," Metheney said. [Los Angeles Times, 10/5/86, via Nexis, emphasis added]

1936 Congressional Hearing Found That Tunnel Was Pursued With "Grave And Inhuman Disregard" For Worker Health. According to the Congressional Record, in a 1936 letter about subcommittee hearings on the Hawk's Nest Tunnel to the Chairman of the House Committee on Labor, Rep. Glenn Griswold wrote:

From the testimony of numerous witnesses, ranging from actual workers on the project to experts from the Federal Bureau of Mines, the subcommittee finds as follows: [...] That the effect of breathing silica dust is well known to the medical profession and to all properly qualified mining engineers. That for more than 20 years the United States Bureau of Mines has been issuing warnings and information while conducting the educational campaign on the dangers of silicosis and means of prevention. That the principal means of prevention are wet drilling, adequate and proper ventilation, and circulation of air, the use of respirators by the workmen, and drills equipped with a suction or vacuum-cup appliance. The subcommittee finds that there was an utter disregard for all and any of these approved methods of prevention in the construction of this tunnel. That the dust was allowed to collect in such quantities and became so dense that visibility of workmen was lowered to a few feet. ... That the air-circulating system was inadequate, insufficient, and out of repair. That respirators were not furnished to or used by the employees of Dennis & Rinehart. That the majority of drills in use were used for dry drilling. That dry drilling is more rapid and effects a large saving in time and labor costs. That no appliances were used on the drills to prevent concentration of dust in the tunnel. [...] That the whole driving of the tunnel was begun, continued, and completed with grave and inhuman disregard of all consideration for the health, lives, and future of the employees." [Congressional Record, Vol. 80, pt. 5, 4/1/36, via WVCulture.org, emphasis added]

1927: Union Carbide Created "New Kanawha Power Company" As A "Dummy Company" For Enhancing Its Operations In West Virginia.  In The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster, Martin Cherniack wrote: "[E]arly in 1927 the company formalized its acquisitions on the New River by forming the New Kanawha Power Company to develop them for hydroelectric power generation. Ostensibly, this new enterprise was chartered to construct public utilities in West Virginia, but no serious attempt was made to pretend that New Kanawha was more than a legal fiction created by the parent company. The operating officer who presented the request to the Public Service Commission of West Virginia was Leonard Davis, the executive vice president of Union Carbide. ... The commission readily licensed the dummy company to develop and produce power for general public sales and for commercial use. In the company's brief history, however, this power had only one purchaser: Union Carbide. The New Kanawha Power Company was an administrative chimera, combining solitary corporate control with minimal liability. Commissioned to produce hydroelectricity, it did not genera[te] a single watt under its own name; a licensed public utility, its entire bounty was kept in private hands." [Martin Cherniack's The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster, 1986, p. 11, 5/7/09, via SEMP.us, emphasis added]

1930: Contractor Began Drilling On Hawk's Nest Tunnel With Thousands Of Mostly Black Laborers. According to the Suburban Emergency Management Project: "Of the 35 who bid on the construction rights for Hawk's Nest Tunnel in September 1929, the lowest bidder, Rinehart and Dennis Company of Charlottesville, Virginia (home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the University of Virginia), won the contract on March 13, 1930. Rinehart and Dennis was widely appreciated as a seasoned, quality company that had already drilled 51 tunnels, many for southern and eastern railroads. There were penalties in the contract for the project extending beyond two years, so Rinehart and Dennis, under the watchful, directive eye of New Kanawha Power Company, under the watchful eye of Union Carbide & Carbon Company, broke ground on March 31, 1930. [...] At least 3,000 of the 5,000 men who worked on the massive Hawk's Nest Tunnel project worked inside the tunnel. Of these 3,000, 75 percent were black. Almost all of the foremen (68 men) and operators of heavy equipment were white." [SEMP.us, 5/7/09, emphasis original, internal citations removed for clarity]

Union Carbide "Knew The Rock Was Extremely High In Silica." According to the Suburban Emergency Management Project: "Union Carbide & Carbon Corporation had taken core samples along the course of the proposed tunnel before construction began, and knew the rock was extremely high in silica (between 96 and 99 percent, for example, in shaft 1 at the powerhouse). Indeed, they captured all of the silica rock mined in the process of excavating the tunnel ... and sent it by railroad to Boncar for later use as a critical raw material in manufacturing ferro-silicates." [SEMP.us, 5/7/09]

Company Employed Faster 'Dry-Drilling' Methods That Increased Workers' Exposure To Silica Dust Without Providing Ventilation Or Facial Respirators. In Muriel Rukeyser's The Book Of The Dead, Tim Dayton wrote:

In an effort to save time and money - and to avoid penalties for late completion - Rinehart and Dennis, under the watchful eye of Union Carbide, used unsafe drilling practices, drilling "dry" rather than "wet"; dry drilling is faster than wet drilling, in which dust raised by drilling is washed out of the air by spraying water at the drill tip. In addition, Rinehart and Dennis provided inadequate ventilation, failed to issue protective respirators, and imposed subhuman living conditions upon the workers. As a result many workers developed acute silicosis, a disabling and ultimately fatal disease produced when silica dust is breathed into the lungs in sufficiently large quantity over a short period. ... Although it is difficult to say precisely how many workers died from silicosis in the Gauley Tunnel tragedy, the conservative estimate of Martin Cherniack in his 1986 book on the disaster...is that 764 workers died from silicosis within five years of the completion of the tunnel. [Tim Dayton's Muriel Rukeyser's The Book Of The Dead, 2003, p. 17, via Google Books]

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1947 — Texas City Port Disaster

Texas City, TX: approx. 4,000 Casualties

"The blast was heard 160 miles away. It shattered all the windows in Texas City and half of those in Galveston, 10 miles away. Some debris reached an altitude of nearly 3 miles before falling back to earth. Two airplanes circling overhead were blown apart by the heavy shrapnel. A one-ton piece of the ship's propeller shaft landed 2½ miles away. Other pieces sailed 5 miles. The blast flattened 20 waterfront blocks and 12 blocks inland. Flaming debris ignited oil, gas and chemical tanks at the sprawling Monsanto complex and three nearby oil companies."


Personal Irresponsibility: Unlabeled Hazardous Materials & A Failure Of Common Sense

April 16, 1947: S.S. Grandcamp's Cargo Of Ammonium Nitrate Caught Fire And Exploded While Ship Was Docked At Texas City, TX. From the official report on the Texas City Disaster by the Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas and the National Board of Fire Underwriters: "A fire discovered by stevedores [dock workers] preparing to resume loading of ammonium nitrate aboard the S. S. GRANDCAMP at Warehouse (Pier) 'O', about 8 A. M., April 16, 1947, resulted in the first of two disastrous explosions at 9:12 A. M., April 16, 1947 which destroyed the entire dock area, numerous oil tanks, the Monsanto Chemical Company, numerous dwellings and business buildings." ["Texas City, Texas, Disaster," accessed 3/20/11, via Local1259IAFF.org]

It has been stated by one of the stevedores [dock workers] that it took about 10 minutes to remove the hatch from No. 4 Hold preparatory to begin loading operations. He descended into the hold, which contained part of the 2300-ton cargo of ammonium nitrate previously loaded at this port; to receive cargo when to odor of smoke was noticed. He immediately began to examine the material in an attempt to locate the fire. The source proved to be alongside the hull in the space formed by sweat boards installed to prevent damage to cargo from condensation on the interior of the ship. This is more or less common practice on ships where the cargo is bulky and subject to damage from moisture. Unable to locate the seat of the fire, he removed several tiers of bags to obtain a better view and could readily see that the cargo was on fire. Calling for water, a container was lowered and thrown and a second container was lowered and thrown on the fire without appreciable effect; a soda-acid extinguisher was next tried to no avail. A hose line was called for but before one could be obtained and used, someone gave orders not to apply water, as the cargo would be damaged. It has been reported but without confirmation that steam was used in an attempt to extinguish the fire. About this time (estimated to be 8:30 A.M. by witnesses who left the area and survived) the stevedores were ordered to abandon ship." ["Texas City, Texas, Disaster," accessed 3/20/11, emphasis added, via Local1259IAFF.org, emphasis added]

The Explosion Was So Powerful It Could Be Heard 160 Miles Away And Debris Destroyed Airplanes Circling The Scene. From Wired: "The captain and 32 of the Grandcamp's crew died; 10 somehow survived. More than 200 people were killed on the quay. The blast was heard 160 miles away. It shattered all the windows in Texas City and half of those in Galveston, 10 miles away. Some debris reached an altitude of nearly 3 miles before falling back to earth. Two airplanes circling overhead were blown apart by the heavy shrapnel. A one-ton piece of the ship's propeller shaft landed 2½ miles away. Other pieces sailed 5 miles." [Wired, 4/16/09, emphasis added]

April 17, 1947: S.S. High Flyer's Cargo Of Ammonium Nitrate Explodes. From the official report on the disaster:

The second explosion resulted from a fire in ammonium nitrate aboard the S. S. HIGH FLYER which occurred some sixteen hours later at 1:10 A. M., April 17, 1947. Damage to property outside the dock area was widespread. Approximately 1000 residences and business buildings suffered either major structural damage or were totally destroyed. Practically every window exposed to the blast in the corporate limits was broken. Several plate glass windows as far away as Galveston (10 miles) were shattered. Flying steel fragments and portions of the cargo were found 13,000 feet distant. A great number of balls of sisal twine, many afire, were blown over the area like torches. Numerous oil tanks were penetrated by flying steel or were crushed by the blast wave which followed the explosions. Drill stems 30 feet long, 6 3/8 inches in diameter, weight 2700 pounds, part of the cargo of the S. S. GRANDCAMP were found buried 6 feet in the clay soil a distance of 13,000 feet from the point of the explosion. ["Texas City, Texas, Disaster," accessed 3/20/11, via Local1259IAFF.org, emphasis added]

The Explosions Set Nearby Monsanto Chemical Company Plant Afire. According to the Associated Press: "A chain of explosions set off by the blowing up of a nitrate-laden ship smote this Gulf port yesterday, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. It was the worst American disaster in ten years. Much of the boom industrial city of 15,000 population was destroyed or damaged. Property loss will run into millions of dollars. Fires followed the blasts. Poisonous gas from exploding chemicals was reported to be filtering through the area. [...] The huge plant of the Monsanto Chemical Company was built in wartime at a cost of $19,000,000 to make styrene, an ingredient of synthetic rubber. Fires still were raging in the Monsanto plant and fire fighters would hear the screams of some workers trapped inside. Rescue was impossible because of the heat and flames. Fire fighters wore gas masks, fearing further explosions. Company officials said there were stocks of explosive chemicals in the buildings." [Associated Press, 4/17/47, via New York Times]

Nearly 500 Died, Hundreds Were Listed Missing, And "Injuries May Have Reached 3,500" From The Explosions And Fire. From Wired: "The fires were not put out until April 18. Bodies and parts of bodies were strewn all over town. 'Blood and guts' was not just a phrase. At least one survivor reported getting stuck in a slippery tangle and looking down to see that it was human intestines. The state government ultimately listed 405 identified and 63 unidentified dead. Another 100 or perhaps 200 were counted as missing. Injuries may have reached 3,500. That's 4,000 casualties in a town of 16,000. More than 1,500 houses - a third of the town's housing - were destroyed. Two thousand of the survivors were rendered homeless. Property damage reached at least $600 million (almost $6 billion in today's money)." [Wired, 4/16/09]

Ammonium Nitrate That Caused Explosions Was Not Properly Labeled. From the official report on the Texas City Disaster by the Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas and the National Board of Fire Underwriters: "It is apparent that little was known regarding the hazards of ammonium nitrate to anyone handling or storing this commodity. The false security engendered in the handling of ammonium nitrate which was such a major factor in this disaster was caused by the improper labeling of the paper bags. No instructions were printed on the bags concerning the handling of the material nor was it labeled as being a hazardous chemical. Lettering in a red color which often denotes hazardous materials would have called to the attention of all concerned, its hazardous nature." ["Texas City, Texas, Disaster," accessed 3/20/11, via Local1259IAFF.org, emphasis added]

Official Report On The Disaster Recommended Regulating Smoking On Piers And Docks. From the official report on the disaster: "The practice of smoking in piers or on docks at any time should always be prohibited regardless of cargo being handled and smoking should obviously be prohibited when handling any combustible cargo. The enforcement of such a regulation is another matter and can only be obtained through education of persons concerned. Whether or not this fire originated from smoking, it must still be considered as a common source of ignition and all precautions taken to regulate it. The use of open lights in these same areas should carry the same restriction as smoking regulations." ["Texas City, Texas, Disaster," accessed 3/20/11, via Local1259IAFF.org, emphasis added]

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1968 — Consol No. 9 Mine Disaster

Farmington, WV: 78 Dead

"Before the day was over, 21 men had made it to the frozen surface; but 78 others still remained trapped, some as much as 600 ft. below the ground. As hope diminished for their rescue, the disaster looked to be the worst mining accident in the U.S. since 119 men died in a 1951 explosion in West Frankfort, Ill."


Underground Explosion: Mine Tragedy Spurs Regulatory Reform

November 20, 1968: Consol No. 9 Mine In Farmington, WV Exploded, Killing 78 Miners. According to the United States Mine Rescue Association (USMRA): "At approximately 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 20, 1968, an explosion occurred in the Consol No.9 Mine, Mountaineer Coal Company, Division of Consolidation Coal Company, Farmington, Marion County, West Virginia.  There were 99 miners in the mine when the explosion occurred, 78 of whom died as a result of the explosion." [USMRA.com, accessed 3/20/11]

Mine fires along with several additional major and minor underground explosions interfered with and eventually prevented rescue and recovery efforts.  The mine was sealed at its surface openings on November 30, 1968. In September 1969, the mine was reopened and operations to recover the remains of the 78 miners were begun and continued until April 1978.  Damage to the mine in the explosion area was extensive, requiring loading of rock falls, replacement of ventilation and transportation facilities, and in some cases new mine entries to bypass extensively caved areas.  Investigative activities were continued, in cooperation with the Company, State, and United Mine Workers of America (UMW A) organizations, as mine areas were recovered.  Between 1969 and 1978, the bodies of 59 victims were recovered and brought to the surface. Recovery operations ceased and all entrances to the mine were permanently sealed in November 1978, leaving 19 victims buried in the mine and leaving some areas of the mine unexplored. [USMRA.com, accessed 3/20/11, emphasis added]

Mine Was Reportedly "Extremely Gassy" Prior To The Fatal Explosion. From Time: "Muffled explosions shook Consol No. 9 for three days, preventing rescue workers from going in after possible survivors. No one could say what set off the first blast, but once the fire was under way, it spread rapidly, feeding on combustible coal dust and deadly methane. Though the mine had been checked regularly with gas-measuring safety devices, miners called No. 9 'hot' before the explosion. William Park, a U.S. Bureau of Mines official, confirmed that it was 'extremely gassy.' Ora Haught, 27 years a miner and brother-in-law of one of the missing men, complained that the mine was 'filled with gas' and 'something was bound to happen.'" [Time, 11/29/68]

Disaster Hastened Final Passage Of Federal Coal Mine Health And Safety Act Of 1969. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Out of the uproar caused by the Farmington explosion came the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, a far reaching document that promised a new day for the men in an industry that had claimed more than 100,000 lives since 1900. Even before the Farmington mine blew up in 1968, the push was on for a better mine safety law. The Johnson Administration introduced a measure in the fall of 1968 that would dramatically strengthen the government's enforcement tools. However, it went to Congress too late to achieve action. Then came the explosion at Farmington and there were new converts to the cause of mine safety. The Nixon Administration expanded upon the Johnson Administration proposals of 1968 and addressed the potential for mine explosions in proposed legislation. President Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 on December 30, 1969. [MSHA.gov, accessed 3/20/11]

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1972 — Sunshine Silver Mine Fire

Shoshone County, ID: 91 Dead

"As I crossed the mine yard, I looked toward the Sunshine Tunnel where the mine exhaust discharged. Thick black smoke boiled out of the opening. A chilling thought went through my mind; 'I hope no one is downwind from that fire!'"

 — Bob Launhardt, Sunshine Mine Safety Engineer

Suffocating Fumes & Inadequate Ventilation

May 1972: 91 Miners Die In A Fire At The Sunshine Silver Mine. As reported by the New York Times: "The last of the victims of a fire on May 2 were found dead tonight in the Sunshine silver mine near here. The discovery of 33 more bodies today and seven more tonight brought the final death toll to 91. There were only two survivors in the disaster. They were rescued Tuesday. The lower levels were not searched until today. Soon after, search crews began sending back grim reports of dead from many levels of the nearly mile-deep mine." [New York Times, 5/12/72]

Eyewitness Account: Carbon Monoxide Level In Mineshaft Was "Lethal," Would-Be Rescuers Sharing Oxygen Masks Died "In A Matter Of Seconds." According to Bob Launhardt, then Safety Engineer at the Sunshine Mine:

As Safety Engineer, I spent the morning touring the development activities on 5600 and 5400 levels.[...]

I was in the lead muck car. Larrs' Hawkins was operating the locomotive. Jim Zingler was riding on the back end of the locomotive, while Don Beehner rode on a timber truck pulled behind the locomotive.

As we entered the heavy smoke, visibility was limited to about five feet. The smoke reminded me of the old steam locomotives. Shortly after we entering the smoke, we encountered Roger Findley. Jim Zingler volunteered to take Roger out of the smoke. Our 'team" was now down to three. I sampled the carbon monoxide concentration in the mine atmosphere with a Draeger gas detector, while observing a flame safety lamp to determine adequacy of oxygen. I was amazed to find carbon monoxide far above the range of the test tube. The tube had a range of 10 to 3,000 ppm, indicated on a scale by a dark stain in the chemical. The tube turned totally black before one-fourth of the sample had passed through. I knew the environment was lethal. I had to warn the other members of the team.

When I turned toward Larry to give a stop signal with my cap lamp, my face mask moved enough to allow a small amount of smoke into the mask. That was scary! Larry stopped the train. I told him the CO was very high. I reminded him of the need to make certain his face mask was tight and to "blow off" through the saliva trap valve every fifteen minutes. Larry passed the information to Don. We then proceeded slowly into the smoke, ultimately meeting Byron Schultz attempting to make his way out. I signaled Larry to stop the train. Byron was gasping for breath through a self-rescuer, and was in a state of near collapse. Larry and I decided to "clear" a McCaa and put it on him. As we prepared the McCaa, Don Beehner removed his face mask, extended it toward Byron and said, "Here, use this. It's oxygen." In a matter of seconds, Don collapsed. Larry and I finished putting the McCaa on Byron and loaded him onto the timber truck-not a good place to ride, but there was no alternative. Then we directed our attention to Don, only to be thwarted by a malfunction to Larry's McCaa. Larry said, "I can't get any air!" I responded, "Hit your bypass!" Larry said, "I did; it didn't work; I have to get out of here!"

Larry then began walking toward the Jewell shaft station. I was alone. With the facepiece of the McCaa in place, Byron was able to talk. He stated over and over, "They're all dead back there!" I knew then that I had to abandon the effort to reach No. 10 shaft. I attempted to lift Don Bechner into the muck car, but was unable to do so. I had no choice but to leave him. ["The Sunshine Mine Fire Disaster: A View From The Inside" by Bob Launhardt, accessed 3/20/11, via USMRA.com, emphasis added]

Carbon Monoxide And Smoke From The Fire Is Blamed For The Deaths. According to the United States Mine Rescue Association: "A fire of as yet undetermined origin was detected by Sunshine employees at approximately 11:35 a.m. on May 2, 1972. At that time, smoke and gas was coming from the 910 raise on the 3700 level. This fire precipitated the death of 91 underground employees by smoke inhalation and/or carbon monoxide poisoning." [USMRA.com, accessed 3/20/11]

Fumes Rendered One Of The "Hoists" That Raises Miners To The Surface Inoperable. According to the United States Mine Rescue Association: "Because of the dense smoke between the 910 raise and No. 10 Shaft, the man (Don Wood) operating the No. 10 Shaft 'chippy' hoist on the 3700 level was forced to abandon the hoistroom.  Consequently, the 'chippy' hoist was never used for evacuating men. Survivors, who later stated that their signals to the 'chippy' hoistroom went unanswered and therefore assumed the signal system was inoperative, did not realize that the hoistroom could not be occupied." [USMRA.com, accessed 3/20/11, emphasis added]

Sunshine Disaster Lead To New Safety Rules Such As Requiring Independent Air Supply For Hoist Operators. As reported by the Associated Press: "Drastic tightening of U.S. mine regulations in the wake of a 1972 Idaho mine fire that killed 92 [sic] people has pushed industry fatalities to a record low, officials said Thursday. Several steps that have been taken in the last 14 years helped lower the number of deaths to 122 in 1985, according to industry figures. Federal regulations now ban open-flame welding underground without a fire estinguisher near, and limit the size of welding jobs that can be done underground, the Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday.  [...] Another result of the Sunshine disaster is a requirement that hoist operators have an air supply completely independent from the mine ventilation system." [Associated Press, 9/19/86, emphasis added]

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1987 — L'Ambiance Plaza Building Collapse

Bridgeport, CT: 28 Dead

"The slabs, weighing a total of 18 million pounds, pancaked down within 15 seconds, killing 28 workers and seriously injuring 16 more."

New York Times

April 23, 1987: The L'Ambiance Plaza Apartment Building Collapses Mid-Construction. As reported by the New York Times: "A $17 million high-rise apartment building under construction in downtown Bridgeport, Conn., collapsed in a thundering roar of concrete slabs and twisted steel beams yesterday afternoon, trapping dozens of construction workers under tons of rubble. The Bridgeport police said early today that as many as 28 might have been killed. Two workers were known dead, seven more were located in the rubble and presumed dead, and 19 more were missing in the debris and officials held out little hope for them. ... Seven workers were hospitalized, one in critical condition, and four others were treated for minor injuries in the collapse of L'Ambiance Plaza, a project with state and private financing on the edge of the central business district of Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city with 143,000 residents." [New York Times, 4/24/87]

28 Died And 16 Were "Seriously" Injured In The Collapse. As reported by the New York Times: "On April 23, 1987, national attention focused on a half-finished apartment building in Bridgeport called L'Ambiance Plaza. At 1:30 P.M. 30 concrete floor slabs, jack-lifted up into the 85-foot-high, two-towered structure, collapsed. The slabs, weighing a total of 18 million pounds, pancaked down within 15 seconds, killing 28 workers and seriously injuring 16 more." [New York Times, 5/19/91, emphasis added]

Building Was Constructed Using "Lift-Slab Technique." As reported by the New York Times: "The contractor, according to engineering experts, was using a method of construction to set the floors in place that is known as the lift-slab technique. In this method, a series of concrete slabs to serve as floors is poured at ground level, one on top of the other, forming a stack. These are allowed to dry solid. Then, a series of hydraulic lifts, one at the top of each pillar of the structural framework, is used to hoist the stack, first to the second floor level, where the lowest slab is fixed in place as the second floor. Then the remaining slabs are lifted to the next level and the slab that is then on the bottom is set in place as the third floor. Witnesses at L'Ambiance Plaza said that when the construction reached as high as the eighth floor - there were conflicting reports on how many slabs were being lifted and how high the flooring went - the slabs slipped, causing the entire building and its framework to fall inward." [New York Times, 4/24/87]

OSHA Found Contractor Failed To Observe Regulations On Strength Of Equipment Used. As reported by the New York Times: "OSHA standards required that the lifting system be capable of carrying 2.5 times the anticipated load, but investigators found 238 brackets that did not meet that requirement. They said the builders had failed to conduct stress tests on the brackets. Texstar and its personnel have repeatedly denied knowledge that the Federal regulations incorporated the 2.5 safety factor promulgated by the American National Standards Institute. Texstar does much of the lift-slab construction in the nation. The Labor Department, parent of OSHA and the Bureau of Standards, denounced 'a pattern of sloppy construction practices throughout the project and an overall sense of employer complacency for essential work place safety considerations.'" [New York Times, 11/20/88]

CT Labor Leader: After L'Ambiance Collapse, We Pushed Through Construction Regulations To Protect Workers. As reported by the CT Post: "John W. Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said the L'Ambiance tragedy gave rise to construction reforms that improved conditions for workers, including the elimination of lift-slab construction. 'We used the tragedy to work for a number of reforms to make the workplace safer. We changed codes, standards and made legal changes to make more people accountable. These people have not died in vain,' he said." [CT Post, 4/23/10]

Collapse "Led To Changes" In OSHA Regulations "Requiring That Registered Engineers Design Lift-Slab Operations." As reported by the New York Times: "The accident -- one of New England's worst building disasters -- led to changes in Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, a moratorium on lift slab construction in Connecticut and an avalanche of investigations, reports and suits, settled out of court. [...] Last October, OSHA initiated regulations requiring that registered engineers design lift-slab operations and that the equipment withstand heavier loads than before. In addition, no one is allowed in a building during lift operations except lift slab operators. If other trades continue to work, an independent engineer must be hired to monitor the operation." [New York Times, 5/19/91, emphasis added]

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1989 — Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Prince William Sound, AK:11M-30M Gallons of Oil Spilled

"The man left at the helm, the third mate, would never have hit Bligh Reef had he simply looked at his Raycas radar. But he could not. Why? Because the radar was not turned on. The complex Raycas system costs a lot to operate, so a frugal Exxon management left it broken and useless for the entire year before the grounding."

Greg Palast, Exxon Valdez investigator

March 24, 1989: The Exxon Valdez Strikes Reef And Spills Millions Of Gallons Of Crude Oil Off The Coast Of Alaska. From Wired: "The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil across 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline. In terms of environmental damage, it ranks among the worst man-made catastrophes ever, and one whose repercussions are felt to this day. The Exxon Valdez, a single-hull oil tanker measuring nearly 1,000 feet long, was laden with 53 million gallons of crude." [Wired, 3/24/09]

Marine Toxicologist And Expert On Valdez Spill: 11 Million Gallons Was The Low-End Estimate, And Actual Spill Was Probably Closer To 30 Million Gallons. In an appearance on NPR's program On the Media, marine toxicologist and Exxon Valdez expert Riki Ott had the following exchange with host Brooke Gladstone:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But where did that figure, 11 million gallons, come from? Many people, including Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist, author and former commercial fisher, argues that 11 million was Exxon's very early estimate and not the actual amount. Ott, who was in Alaska during the Exxon Valdez spill, says it was a dubious figure from the start.

RIKI OTT: Right off the bat, day one, uh, when I was in Cordova flying over to Valdez, we heard that there was a low-end estimate of 10.4 million gallons and a high end estimate of 38 million gallons. And the next day it was nudged up to 10.8 million gallons, and the media just captured that number. Already, 10.8 million gallons was horrific. It was the biggest oil spill in our nation's history. It was big enough for the media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying that the media simply ignored the high end estimate, or Exxon stopped repeating it?

RIKI OTT: Exxon never said it in a press conference. Just when the media started to ask questions, where did that 10.8 million gallons come from, has it been independently verified, Frank Iarossi, the owner of Exxon Shipping, at a press conference said, alcohol may be involved. And I kid you not, I witnessed the entire international media just switch tracks, and that was how we got 10.8 million gallons, rounded up to 11. [...] The State of Alaska went and hired independent surveyors because they were preparing for a lawsuit. This was a secret investigation. The code word for it was "Ace." Each of the two independent surveyors tracked the amount of water that offloaded from Exxon Valdez, which amounted to around 19 million gallons. We have to remember that 8 of 11 cargo holds were ripped wide open. There was a 21-foot tide going in and out twice a day, and it just acted like a washing machine. So if you add 19 million gallons of water in with the 11 million gallons of oil that we know spilled, you actually end up with closer to 30 million gallons. And that's what the two surveyors estimated spilled, between 30 to 35 million gallons. [On the Media, 6/18/10, emphasis added]

Ship's Captain Left Insufficiently Rested Men In Charge Of Ship Ahead Of Crash. From Wired:

After clearing the Valdez Narrows, Master Joseph Hazelwood briefly resumed control of the ship from the port of Valdez harbor pilot.

Then he quit the wheel house, leaving the third mate and an able seaman to handle the ship. He picked a bad time to leave the bridge.

Exxon Valdez was outside the normal shipping lane in an effort to avoid icebergs. Hazelwood had obtained permission from the Coast Guard to change course, which also gave the Coast Guard shared responsibility for ensuring a safe passage. But the ship was not properly monitored and subsequently struck Bligh Reef while maneuvering toward open water just past midnight.

As captain, Hazelwood was ultimately responsible for what happened. Not only did he err in leaving the bridge at a critical moment, he compounded his mistake by handing control of the ship to two men who had not completed their mandatory six hours off duty before beginning a 12-hour watch. The vessel may have also been on autopilot when it hit the reef. [Wired, 3/24/09]

Exxon Valdez Investigator Greg Palast: Crash Happened Because Crucial Raycas Radar System Was Turned Off, Not Because Of "Drunken Skipper." According to Greg Palast, who investigated the spill on behalf of Alaska's Chugach Natives: "Yes, the captain was 'three sheets to the wind' -- but sleeping it off below-decks. The ship was in the hands of the third mate who was driving blind. That is, the Exxon Valdez' Raycas radar system was turned off; turned off because it was busted and had been busted since its maiden voyage. Exxon didn't want to spend the cash to fix it. So the man at the helm, electronically blindfolded, drove it up onto the reef. So why the story of the drunken skipper? Because it lets Exxon off the hook: Calling it a case of 'drunk driving' turns the disaster into a case of human error, not corporate penny-pinching greed." [GregPalast.com, 3/23/09, emphasis added]

The Oil Had A Devastating Impact On Wildlife. From Wired: "The statistics are grim. Upwards of half a million seabirds were killed outright by the spill. Scientists also counted among the dead 1,000 otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales. The number of salmon and herring eggs destroyed was put in the billions." [Wired, 3/24/09]

Oil Pollution Act Of 1990 Passed In Wake Of Exxon Valdez Spill Required Double-Hulled Tankers For Shipping Oil. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

A year ago, President Bush signed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that requires oil tankers using American ports to be outfitted with double hulls for added protection against oil spills like the one that fouled Alaskan shores in 1989. [...] The Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989 was the catalyst for the legislative push to require crude oil and petroleum product tankers using American ports to have double hulls and to increase the insurance and financial liability requirements of shipowners. Nearly 1,000 tankers with single hulls may be converted into double-hull vessels or scrapped and replaced with new ships between now and 2015. While some foreign-flag single-hull  tankers could remain in use between foreign ports after 2015, the law requires that any tanker flying the U.S. flag must be outfitted with inner and outer skins. Signed Aug. 18, 1990, the law has a 25-year implementation period for ships to be fitted with double hulls. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/12/91, via Nexis, emphasis added]

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1989 — Phillips 66 Chemical Complex Explosion

Pasadena, TX: 23 Dead

"This tragedy is magnified by the clear evidence that this explosion was avoidable had recognized safety procedures been followed."

— then-Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole

A Cloud Of Fire: 575 Safety Violations & "Ignored" Warnings

October 23, 1989: Flammable Chemical Vapors Released During Maintenance At The Phillips 66 Chemical Complex Exploded, Killing 23 And Injuring Hundreds. According to the British Health and Safety Executive: "At approximately 1:00 p.m. on the 23rd October 1989 Phillips' 66 chemical complex at Pasadena, near Houston (USA) experienced a chemical release on the polyethylene plant. A flammable vapour cloud formed which subsequently ignited resulting in a massive vapour cloud explosion. Following this initial explosion there was a series of further explosions and fires. The consequences of the explosions resulted in 23 fatalities and between 130 - 300 people were injured. Extensive damage to the plant facilities occurred. The day before the incident scheduled maintenance work had begun to clear three of the six settling legs on a reactor. A specialist maintenance contractor was employed to carry out the work. A procedure was in place to isolate the leg to be worked on. During the clearing of No.2 settling leg part of the plug remained lodged in the pipework. A member of the team went to the control room to seek assistance. Shortly afterwards the release occurred. Approximately 2 minutes later the vapour cloud ignited." [HSE.gov.uk, accessed 3/20/11]

Explosion "Threw Debris As Far As Six Miles Away" And Registered On The Richter Scale. According to a report on the explosion by Professor Emeritus Robert Bethea of Texas Tech University: "On October 23, 1989, a massive explosion demolished the Phillips 66 Company polyethylene plant in Pasadena, TX, (a Houston suburb) when more than 85,000 lbm of flammable material was instantaneously released to the atmosphere.  This massive gas cloud was ignited within less than two min.  The initial explosion threw debris as far away as six miles and registered between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale on Rice University seismographs.  There were many secondary explosions.  In all, 23 lives were lost and 314 people were injured. Capital losses were initially estimated at over $715 million. Business disruption losses were nearly as great, $700 million." ["Explosion and Fire at the Phillips Company Houston Chemical Complex, Pasadena, TX," Bethea, accessed 3/20/11, via Lousiana State University, emphasis added]

Explosion Blamed On Combination Of Inadequate Training For Maintenance Workers And Serious Design Flaws In Complex's Equipment. From root cause analysts ThinkReliability:

Looking at the Phillips 66 Explosion Cause Map, one can see how a series of procedural errors occurred that fateful day.  Contract workers were busy performing a routine maintenance task of clearing out a blockage in a collection tank for the plastic pellets produced by the reactor.  The collection tank was removed, and work commenced that morning.  However, at some point just after lunch, the valve to the reactor system was opened, releasing an enormous gas cloud which ignited less than two minutes later.

The subsequent OSHA investigation highlighted numerous errors.  First, the air hoses used to activate the valve pneumatically were left near the maintenance site.  When the air hoses were connected backwards, this automatically opened the valve, releasing a huge volatile gas cloud into the atmosphere.  It is unknown why the air hoses were reconnected at all.  Second, a lockout device had been installed by Phillips personnel the previous evening, but was removed at some point prior to the accident.  A lockout device physically prevents someone from opening a valve.  Finally, in accordance with local plant policy but not Phillips policy, no blind flange insert was used as a backup.  The insert would have stopped the flow of gas into the atmosphere if the valve had been opened.  Had any of those three procedures been executed properly, there would not have been an explosion that day.  According to the investigation, contract workers had not been adequately trained in the procedures they were charged with performing.

Additionally, there were significant design flaws in the reactor/collector system.  The valve system used had no mechanical redundancies; the single Demco ball valve was the sole cut-off point between the highly-pressurized reactor system and the atmosphere.  Additionally, there was a significant design flaw with the air hoses, as alluded to earlier.  Not only were the air hoses connected at the wrong time, but there was no physical barrier to prevent them from being connected the wrong way.  ...  Connecting the air hoses backward meant the valve went full open, instead of closed.  Both of these design flaws contributed to the gas release, and again, this incident would not have occurred if either flaw was absent. [ThinkReliability.com, 2009]

Phillips 66 Paid $4 Million Fine To Settle 575 Safety Violations With OSHA. As reported by the Associated Press: "Phillips 66 Co. has agreed to pay a record $4 million to settle allegations of worker-safety violations stemming from a 1989 blast that killed 23 people at a Texas chemical plant, the government said Thursday. The company also has agreed to implement corporate-wide safety management procedures and launch new employee training programs about hazardous chemicals, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said. OSHA originally proposed a $5.7 million fine against the petroleum company, charging it with 575 'willful' and 'serious' safety violations at its Houston Chemical Complex. Phillips, in settling the case, agreed to pay $4 million, which will be the largest amount collected in OSHA's 20-year history." [Associated Press, 8/23/91, via Victoria Advocate]

Phillips Explosion "Prompted A Key Reform" To Require Companies To Maintain "A System Of Inspections, Maintenance And Emergency Procedures." According to the Center for Public Integrity: "The Phillips blast prompted a key reform: OSHA's adoption in 1992 of a rule requiring high-hazard industries such as oil refining and chemical manufacturing to identify risks and address them before an accident could kill, maim or unleash toxic chemicals into neighborhoods. Under the so-called process safety management standard, eventually copied by many states, companies must have in place a system of inspections, maintenance and emergency procedures to prevent catastrophic fires, explosions and chemical releases." [PublicIntegrity.org, 2/28/11]

In Settlement, Phillips Co. Instituted More Comprehensive "Process Safety Management Procedures." According to a report on the explosion by Professor Emeritus Robert Bethea of Texas Tech University: "As a result of the settlement between OSHA and Phillips  66 Company, OSHA agreed to delete the willful characterization of the citations and the Company  agreed to pay a $4 million fine and to institute process safety management procedures at Pasadena,  Sweeny, and Borger, TX and also at its facilities in Woods Cross, UT. [...] In addition, the Company will 'develop and maintain a compilation of written safety information for employees and contractors. . . and communicate this information to all affected employees focusing  on hazards of chemicals and information on the equipment and technology involved in the process.  Phillips will also prepare written operating procedures to provide clear instructions for safely conducting process and maintenance operations.'" ["Explosion and Fire at the Phillips Company Houston Chemical Complex, Pasadena, TX," Bethea, accessed 3/20/11, emphasis added]

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1991 — Imperial Foods Fire

Hamlet, NC: 25 Dead

"Federal and state inspectors said locked or blocked exits prevented some workers from escaping. They also discovered the plant had no sprinkler system and no fire alarms."

— Associated Press

Locked In An Inferno: Padlocked Fire Doors & No Sprinkler System

September 3, 1991: Imperial Food Products Chicken Factory Catches Fire And 25 Workers Die Because Of Locked Exit Doors. As reported by the New York Times: "About 8 A.M. on Sept. 3, fire flashed through the decrepit brick factory where Imperial Food Products Inc. cooked chicken for fast-food chains. With all means of escape locked or blocked, except the main entrance, 25 workers died and 56 were injured. The 164 other employees were left without jobs because the plant closed." [New York Times, 11/25/91, via Nexis]

Door Marked "Fire Door — Do Not Block" Was Padlocked. As reported by the Chicago Tribune: "Fire engulfed a chicken processing plant Tuesday, creating an inferno in which panicked workers were trapped by blocked or locked doors, witnesses said. Authorities reported 25 people killed and at least 45 injured. 'They were screaming 'Let me out!'' said passerby Sam Breeden. 'They were beating on the door.' Blackened footprints marked a door where workers tried to kick their way out to escape the fire, which was believed to have started in giant grease-filled vats. A reporter found a padlock on a door at the Imperial Food plant marked 'Fire Door — Do Not Block.' Many of the dead were found at exits from the plant, frozen in poses of escape. Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller said some bodies also were found in a freezer where they had apparently fled to avoid the fire." [Chicago Tribune, 9/4/91, via Nexis, emphasis added]

Imperial Foods' Owner Sentenced To 20 Years Prison Time. As reported by the Associated Press: "A poultry processor accused of ordering fire exits locked was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison Monday after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the fire deaths of 25 workers. Emmett Roe, whose Imperial Foods Products plant burned last September in one of the nation's deadliest workplace fires, could have been received 10 years on each of the 25 counts. In a surprise plea bargain, Roe, 65, was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months. Under parole guidelines, he could be released after serving less than three years, defense attorney Joe Cheshire said." [Associated Press, 9/15/92, via Nexis, emphasis added]

Asst. District Attorney: Owner "Ran The Plant As A Dictator." According to the Associated Press: "'Our investigation did show Emmett Roe ran the plant as a dictator,' Assistant District Atty. David Graham said. 'He personally made the decision to padlock the doors. . . . I'm confident the person who's responsible for that locked door policy is in prison.'" [Associated Press, 9/15/92, via Nexis]

Doors Were Locked Because Management "Were Convinced That Employees Sometimes Stole Pieces Of Chicken." From the Washington Post: "The locals just referred to it as Imperial. If your application went through in the morning, you could find yourself working that very day, on the late shift. And if you lived in the Larry Hubbard Homes, a housing project, all you had to do was walk a few blocks -- right past the pine trees, less than 10 minutes -- and there you were, at Imperial. A one-floor Tobacco Road-era brick building with just one door used for entry. The owners were convinced that employees sometimes stole pieces of chicken, so most of the exit doors were kept padlocked. Inside, there were conveyor belts, concrete floors, vats of grease that could climb above 500 degrees. The specialty was chicken tenders that were shipped up and down the East Coast and throughout the South." [Washington Post, 11/10/02, via Archive.org]

Plant Had No Fire Suppression Or Alarm System. As reported by the Associated Press: "Federal and state inspectors said locked or blocked exits prevented some workers from escaping. They also discovered the plant had no sprinkler system and no fire alarms." [Associated Press, 9/15/92, via Nexis]

Business Owner On North Carolina's OSHA Advisory Council Blamed Locked Doors, Deaths On Thieving Workers. As reported by the Wilmington Morning Star: "The workers at Imperial Food Products contributed to a fatal fire by being dishonest, a member of the state OSHA advisory council said Wednesday. 'A lot of times an employer is at the mercy of his employees,' said Bradford Barringer, who owns a utility construction company in Stanly County. '...I imagine they stole chickens just as fast as they could go... It probably wouldn't have happened, somewhat, if there had been honest employees in that plant,' Mr. Barringer said at a meeting of the Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Council. 'If there had been more honest employees, those doors probably wouldn't have been locked.'" [Wilmington Morning Star, 11/21/91]

Plant Had Never Been Inspected For Lack Of Sufficient Worksite Inspectors. From the Associated Press: "Department of Labor officials say stingy budgets over the last several years have left them with 16 field inspectors for the state's 180,000 plants. That's why the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, where 25 people died in a fire last week, had never been inspected in the 11 years it operated. ... Federal guidelines say North Carolina's occupational safety and health program should have 114 inspectors, seven times the number now employees." [Associated Press, 9/9/91, via Mount Airy News]

North Carolina Operated Its Own Workplace Safety Program "Under An Option Given To States In 1970." As reported by the New York Times: "North Carolina is one of 23 states that operate their own federally approved programs for workplace safety and health inspection under an option given to states in 1970. [...] Federal guidelines, he said, would normally require that the state have 64 safety inspectors and 50 health inspectors. He said that over the years he had requested additional state money to hire 100 inspectors but that cutbacks in the Governor's proposed budget or what the Legislature finally approved had left him with fewer inspectors than he had 10 years ago." [New York Times, 9/5/91]

Fire Led State Legislature To Pass 14 New Laws On Worker Safety. From the Christian Science Monitor: "Still, the 1991 Hamlet fire changed attitudes dramatically here in North Carolina. The legislature passed 14 new safety laws, including a whistle-blower provision, and boosted the inspector corps from 60 to 114." [Christian Science Monitor, 2/3/03]

Reforms Included Stronger Enforcement Of Fire Code, Protecting Whistleblowers, And Additional $8.4 Million In Funding To Improve Workplace Safety. From the Associated Press:

Bills included in the package would:

-Strengthen enforcement of the state building code and fire code. [...]

-Create a special emphasis program for inspections that would target industries with higher numbers of worker injuries or deaths. [...]

-Protect the jobs of workers who report workplace safety and health violations.

-Require companies with poor safety records, as rated by insurance companies, to form worker safety committees. [...]

- Appropriate $8.4 million for additional health and safety inspectors in the Department of Labor, fire safety specialists in the Department of Insurance, start-up costs for an institute of safety and health at East Carolina University, pre-paid postcards for workers to report violations and a hazardous materials storage and disposal facility at North Carolina State University. [Associated Press, 4/28/92, via Mount Airy News]

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2005 — BP Refinery Explosion

Texas City, TX: 15 Dead

"The problems that existed at BP Texas City were neither momentary nor superficial. They ran deep through that operation of a risk denial and a risk blindness that was not being addressed anywhere in the organization."

— then-Chairwoman of U.S. Chemical Safety Board Carolyn Merritt

"Bank The Savings" & Blame The Victims: BP's Unsafe Corporate Culture

March 23, 2005: Fatal Explosion At BP's Texas City Refinery. From the New York Times: "A fiery explosion with plumes of black smoke shattered a chemical unit at the huge BP oil refinery in Texas City near Galveston on Wednesday afternoon, killing at least 14 people and injuring more than 100, the authorities said." [New York Times, 3/24/05]

During Restart Of Refinery Component At BP Refinery In Texas City, Cloud Of Fuel Vapors Escaped Machinery And Exploded. According to Popular Mechanics:

The most dangerous time for an oil refinery isn't when it is running, but when it's in transition. During a refinery turnaround, some 30,000 separate procedures are performed. Dozens are required to move volatile contents safely out of and into position when the isom unit is coming back on line. 

As workers restarted a component of the unit, abnormal pressure built up in the production tower, and so three relief valves opened to allow highly volatile gasoline components to escape to the 10 x 20-ft. "blowdown" drum. But so much fuel flooded into the drum that its capacity was rapidly exceeded. Liquid and vapor shot straight up the 113-ft. vent stack, into the open air. 

Witnesses saw a cloud of vaporizing fuel geyser out of the stack and cascade to the ground. One person reported hearing a desperate call crackle over a handheld radio. "What is this? Stop all hot work! Stop all hot work!" 

But too much equipment was running to shut it all down. As vapors were sucked into its engine, an idling pickup at the base of the tower began to rev up, according to witnesses. A worker raced to turn it off, but he was too late. Somewhere in the cloud of fumes, perhaps in the truck's engine, a spark touched off the gas and ignited a firestorm.
 [Popular Mechanics, 9/14/05, emphasis added]

BP Officials Opted To "Bank The Savings" Instead Of Spending $150,000 On Safety Equipment That "Would Have Reduced The Tragedy To A Minor Irritation." As reported by ProPublica:

Investigations after the blast showed that it might have been prevented.

Company documents produced during a lawsuit by a woman whose parents were killed in the blast showed that in 2002 BP managers had considered installing a flare on top of the blowdown drum to burn off excess gas, a safety feature that wasn't yet mandated by Texas regulators.

"Therefore, we need to decide if we want to invest $150M (thousand) now to save more money later on," wrote BP employee David Arnett in an e-mail to bosses at Texas City. Walt Wundrow, a technical manager, responded to the group: "My counsel is avoid any pre-investment against uncertain future requirements," adding, capital expenditure "is very tight. Bank 150k savings now." another BP employee agreed. "Bank the savings in 99.999% of the cases." he wrote.

A flare would have reduced the tragedy to a minor irritation, said Michael Sawyer, a process safety engineer who has investigated the Texas City plant for some of the plaintiffs' attorneys. [ProPublica, 7/2/10, emphasis added]

In The Press, BP Blamed Explosion On Workers. From the Houston Chronicle: "BP on Tuesday placed the lion's share of the blame for the deadly blast at its Texas City refinery at the feet of low- and mid-level workers who it said were lax in following written company procedures during one of the most dangerous times in refinery operations. Had the six operators and one supervisor assigned to the start-up of the refinery's so-called isomerization unit been doing their jobs, the explosion would not have happened, 15 people would not have been killed and more than 170 would not have been injured, said Ross Pillari, president of BP Products North America. 'The mistakes made during the start-up of this unit were surprising and deeply disturbing,' Pillari said during a news conference in which BP released a 47-page interim report on its investigation." [Houston Chronicle, 5/18/05, emphasis added]

Bush-Era Head Of U.S. Chemical Safety Board: BP Was In Denial About Extent Of Safety Problems. From CBS News:

"The problems that existed at BP Texas City were neither momentary nor superficial. They ran deep through that operation of a risk denial and a risk blindness that was not being addressed anywhere in the organization," says Carolyn Merritt, who was appointed by President Bush to be chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal agency which investigates all major chemical disasters. 

"These things do not have to happen. They are preventable. They are predictable, and people do not have to die because they're earning a living," Merritt says.

Asked if she thinks this accident could have been easily prevented, Merritt says, "Absolutely."

Over the past 18 months, Merritt's investigators found problems at Texas City just about everywhere they looked
: antiquated equipment, corroded pipes about to burst, and safety alarms that didn't work. [CBS News, 10/29/06, emphasis added]

BP Acquired Texas City Facility In Merger With Amoco. As reported by ProPublica: "The original refinery was built by Pan American Refining Corp. in the 1930s, and the facility has cycled through a string of owners since then. When BP took possession of the plant after the company's 1999 merger with Amoco, the refinery was losing money and in bad repair." [ProPublica, 7/2/10]

Following Merger, BP Cut Over $1 Million In Safety-Related Spending From The Texas City Facility Budget. As reported by ProPublica: 

Soon after the merger, BP demanded a 25 percent budget cut across all its U.S. operations.

Among the reductions at Texas City:

Employee: Boss Told Me To "Keep My Mouth Shut" When I Raised Safety Concerns. As reported by ProPublica:  "Pat Nickerson, a former construction adviser at the plant, said in an interview that he noticed a steady degradation of safety culture and maintenance. When he mentioned his concerns to his bosses, he said they told him to 'keep my mouth shut and don't worry about it.'" [ProPublica, 7/2/10]

Audit Of Texas City Facility Prior To Explosion Warned Of Workers' "Exceptional Degree Of Fear." As reported by ProPublica: "[In January 2005], the Telos Group, an outside auditor that [site director Don] Parus had hired, produced what was probably the most damning internal report ever to emerge from the Texas City refinery. After surveying more than 1,000 workers and interviewing hundreds, the auditors concluded that the plant's employees had an 'exceptional degree of fear' of a catastrophe, and that 'blindness' across the entire corporation prevented critical safety information from reaching the top levels of BP management. It also said that poor conditions at the plant created hazards 'you would never encounter at Shell, Chevron, Exxon, etc.'" [ProPublica, 7/2/10]

After Audit, Refinery Managers Saw Significant Risk "That The Texas City Site 'Kills Someone'." As reported by ProPublica: "In March, refinery managers outlined key risks facing the refinery in 2005. One was that plant workers would avoid reporting some safety incidents 'in fear of consequences.' Another was that the Texas City site 'kills someone in the next 12-18 month' [sic]." [ProPublica, 7/2/10]

BP Paid $21 Million OSHA Fine, $50 Million Criminal Settlement To DOJ, And Agreed To Make Safety Improvements. As reported by ProPublica: "After the Texas City explosion, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP $21 million. The company also agreed to a $50 million plea bargain with the U.S. Department of Justice, in which it promised to comply with the improvements OSHA required." [ProPublica, 7/2/10]

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2010 — Upper Big Branch Mine Collapse

Mountcoal, WV: 29 Dead

"Last year alone, MSHA cited Upper Big Branch for 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines. Production more than tripled during that period, according to federal records."

— Associated Press

500 Safety Violations In A Single Year: Massey Energy's Deadly Pattern

April 5, 2010: Fatal Explosion In Upper Big Branch Mine. As reported by The Guardian: "Twenty-five miners were killed and at least four were still unaccounted for today after an explosion in a mine in West Virginia - the worst US mining disaster for more than 25 years. The search for survivors of the explosion more than 300m (1,000 ft) underground at a remote plant with a history of safety problems was suspended because rising methane gas levels posed a high risk of another blast. Bore holes were being drilled to allow toxic gas to escape." [The Guardian, 4/6/10]

Mine Explosions Caused By Combination Of Methane Gas And Coal Dust. As reported by NPR: "Investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration today briefed reporters on what they believe caused the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 in West Virginia last April. ... Methane gas, they said again, started it all, although they could not identify the specific source of the methane. As we've reported before, Upper Big Branch is an especially gassy mine and methane seeps in from the coal seam, the mined out area behind it and cracks in the mine floor. [...] Coal dust, investigators believe, provided the fuel that turned this small methane ignition into a fiery concussive force that traveled more than two miles underground and took 29 lives along the way." [NPR, 1/19/11]

Upper Big Branch Had Been Cited For Numerous Safety Violations Involving "Ventilation Systems To Control Methane And Dust." As reported by the Wall Street Journal: "The Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, has cited the Upper Big Branch Mine for hundreds of violations in recent years, including 10 so far this year related to legal requirements for ventilation systems to control methane and dust. The company has contested numerous fines, including two in January totaling more than $130,000 related to mine ventilation." [Wall Street Journal, 4/4/10]

Massey Energy, Parent Company Of Upper Big Branch Operators, Had Been Cited For Scores Of Violations At Various Mining Cites, Including Upper Big Branch. As reported by ABC News:

The West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 25 workers and left another four unaccounted for in the worst mining disaster since 1984 had amassed scores of citations from mining safety officials, including 57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow a ventilation plan.

The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company. They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them. Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Another Massey subsidiary agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines last year and admitted to willfully violating mandatory safety standards that led to the deaths of two miners. The fine was the largest penalty in the history of the coal industry.

The nation's sixth biggest mining company by production, Massey Energy took in $24 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2009. The company paid what was then the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry for the 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia. The fire trapped 12 miners. Two suffocated as they looked for a way to escape. Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports. [ABC News, 4/6/10, emphasis added]

"Good Ventilation Was Particularly Important For The Upper Big Branch Mine" Because It Produced More Methane Than Is Typical. From the Washington Post: "But Massey's violations included problems with ventilation, which [former mine regulator Celeste] Monforton said is essential for removing the methane and coal dust that build up during mining. 'It's the main way we dilute those dust and gases so they don't explode,' she said. 'It's a critical piece of mine safety and how you prevent explosions.' Good ventilation was particularly important for the Upper Big Branch mine because it generated 2 million cubic feet of methane a day, higher than most mines, said the former regulator." [Washington Post, 4/7/10]

In 2009 Alone Upper Big Branch Was Cited For 495 Violations Totaling Nearly $1 Million In Penalties. As reported by the Associated Press in 2010: "The coal mine rocked by an explosion that killed at least 25 workers in the nation's deadliest mining disaster since 1984 had been cited for 600 violations in less than a year and a half, some of them for not properly ventilating methane - the highly combustible gas suspected in the blast. The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine has focused attention on the business and safety practices of the owner, Massey Energy, a powerful and politically connected company in Appalachia known for producing big profits, as well as big piles of safety and environmental violations and big damage awards for grieving widows. [...] Last year alone, MSHA cited Upper Big Branch for 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines. Production more than tripled during that period, according to federal records. So far this year, the agency has found 105 violations at the mine." [Associated Press, 4/7/10, via Houston Chronicle, emphasis added]

Massey Energy Receives And Contests Many More Citations For Safety Violations Than Other Mining Companies. From the Washington Post: "A surge in the number of challenges to mine safety citations has clogged a federal appeals process, allowing 32 coal mines to avoid tougher enforcement measures last year, government safety officials said Friday. Five of those mines are owned by Massey Energy, which is contesting more federal safety fines than any other coal mining company in the nation, according to data and federal officials. By contesting the citations, the 32 mines were able to avoid falling into a 'potential pattern of violation' category, which would have brought closer scrutiny and moved regulators a step closer to the ability to restrict or shut down operations. ... Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where at least 25 miners died in an explosion on Monday, had an unusually large number of those violations, including 54 in the past 12 months, a rate 11 times the national average." [Washington Post, 4/10/10, emphasis added]

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2010 — Deepwater Horizon Drilling Disaster

Gulf of Mexico: 11 Dead

"Halliburton, the oil field services giant that provided the cement for BP's Macondo well, knew months before the explosion and spill that the cement mixture used on the well was not stable, according to new findings the National Oil Spill Commission released Thursday. Despite multiple failed tests on the mixture, Halliburton and BP used the cement on the well."

Mother Jones

'They Knew': Halliburton's Bad Cement And BP's Shoddy Maintenance

April 20, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Drilling Rig Explodes. From ABC News: "An overnight explosion in the Gulf of Mexico rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast, sending spectacular bursts of flame into the sky. The fires were still raging today." [ABC News, 4/21/10]

Coast Guard Called Off Search For 11 Missing Workers Because "They Believe[d] The Men Never Made It Off The Platform." From the Telegraph: "American Coast Guard officials have called off the three-day search for 11 workers missing since an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. Officials said they believe the men never made it off the platform that erupted into a giant fireball on Tuesday. The Coast Guard says it will resume the search if any ships in the area see anything, but the workers' chances of survival had seemed slim well before Friday afternoon's announcement." [Telegraph, 4/24/10]

Explosion Was Caused By "Blowout" Of Pressurized Oil. From the New York Times: "At 9:38, well data indicates, the first hydrocarbons passed through the Horizon's five-story blowout preventer. Resting on the seabed, the blowout preventer was an elaborate fail-safe device that gave the drilling crew several ways to seal the well. But once the oil and gas got past the blowout preventer, there was nothing to stop them from racing up the Horizon's riser pipe, the 5,000-foot umbilical cord to the rig. [...] Only minutes before the blowout, the drill shack had seemed to sense trouble. Mr. Revette and Mr. Anderson were overheard discussing puzzling pressure readings. They had also turned off the pumps removing mud from the well, and they had sent word that they were going to hold off on plugging it. When the mud erupted, they reacted quickly, well data shows. They turned to their mightiest weapon, the 400-ton blowout preventer. It gave the men several different methods to shut in the well, the most extreme being a powerful set of hydraulic shears that could cut through drill pipe and seal the well. [...]The first big explosion centered on Engine 3, investigators believe. A second explosion centered on Engine 6." [New York Times, 6/20/10, emphasis added]

Halliburton Knowingly Provided Unstable Cement For Use On Macondo Well. As reported by Mother Jones:

Halliburton, the oil field services giant that provided the cement for BP's Macondo well, knew months before the explosion and spill that the cement mixture used on the well was not stable, according to new findings the National Oil Spill Commission released Thursday. Despite multiple failed tests on the mixture, Halliburton and BP used the cement on the well.

In the months since the spill, it's become clear that something went wrong with the cement job on the Macondo well, which should have prevented oil and gas from entering the well and causing the April 20 explosion. BP used a nitrogen foam cement that Halliburton recommended and supplied on the well. In a letter to the commission, the panel's lead investigator, Fred H. Bartlit Jr., cites documents obtained from Halliburton and tests conducted by cement experts at Chevron that suggest that there were plenty of warnings about this cement mixture before the explosion.

The documents from Halliburton show that the company conducted two tests on the cement mixture in February 2010, and both indicated that it was not stable. The company provided the results of one of those two tests to BP in March, but Bartlit states that "There is no indication that Halliburton highlighted to BP the significance of the foam stability data or that BP personnel raised any questions about it."

It appears that a third test conducted on April 13, seven days before the explosion, again demonstrated that the mix was unstable, but Halliburton did not provide that data to BP. Only a fourth test, performed after Halliburton's lab modified the testing procedure, produced results that found the mixture to be stable-but that data was not available until after the explosion, which indicates that the mixture was used with no lab results that suggested it would be stable. [Mother Jones, 10/28/10, emphasis added]

Following Explosion, Oil Gushed From Well Into Gulf Of Mexico. From the Associated Press: "A sense of doom settled over the American coastline from Louisiana to Florida on Saturday as a massive oil slick spewing from a ruptured well kept growing, and experts warned that an uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream carries it toward the Atlantic. [...]The Coast Guard conceded Saturday that it's nearly impossible to know how much oil has gushed since the April 20 rig explosion, after saying earlier it was at least 1.6 million gallons -- equivalent to about 2½ Olympic-sized swimming pools. The blast killed 11 workers and threatened beaches, fragile marshes and marine mammals, along with fishing grounds that are among the world's most productive." [Associated Press, 4/30/10, via KITV.com]

The Well Spilled 206 Million Gallons Of Oil Before The "Gusher" Could Be Stopped. From the Associated Press: "The gulf well spewed 206 million gallons of oil until the gusher was first stopped in mid-July with a temporary cap. Mud and cement were later pushed down through the top of the well, allowing the cap to be removed." [Associated Press, 9/19/10, via San Francisco Chronicle]

National Wildlife Federation Says Oil Spill Injured Or Killed "More Than 8,000 Birds, Sea Turtles, And Marine Mammals." From the National Wildlife Federation: "More than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the six months after the spill. The long-term damage caused by the oil and the nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants used on the spill may not be known for years." [NWF.org, accessed 3/20/11, emphasis original]

While Many Drilling Rigs Have Backup Blowout Preventers, Deepwater Horizon Had Only One Of The Devices. From the New York Times: "While no guarantee against disaster, drilling experts said, two blind shear rams give an extra measure of reliability, especially if one shear ram hits on a joint connecting two drill pipes. 'It's kind of like a parachute - it's nice to have a backup,' said Dan Albers, a drilling engineer who is part of an independent investigation of the disaster. But neither Transocean nor BP took steps to outfit the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer with two blind shear rams. In a statement, BP pointed to the need for the rig to carry its blowout preventer from well to well. BP said space limitations on the Deepwater Horizon would have prohibited the company from adding a second blind shear ram to the existing configuration on the blowout preventer. But other experts told The Times that a second blind shear ram could have been swapped in for some other component." [New York Times, 6/20/10, emphasis added]

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