UCB professor: Texas blast is example of lax oversight

April 18, 2013 7:11:11 PM PDT
A soil scientist at U.C. Berkeley says the deadly Texas explosion is another example of a troubling pattern; a lack of proper oversight to ensure public safety.

Professor Garrison Sposito is not the only scientist or engineer to make the same connection. He says you can see it in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the San Bruno pipeline explosion; hazardous high demand products and disasters like the one we are seeing in Texas.

People who know fertilizer production will tell that a plant, like the one in the Central Texas town of West, was a hazardous place even under the optimal operating conditions.

"Amonium nitrate can be heated and explode as people have made bombs from it, and know this," Sposito said.

The soil scientist says the process involves very high temperatures and pressures. He notes that the ammonia fertilizer plants all over the country are working to meet a very high demand.

"We actually import just as much as we make in the way of these fertilizers," he said.

Professor Sposito adds that we don't do an adequate job of safety monitoring.

"Because of the lack of manpower, that frankly there are not very many people monitoring these things," Sposito said

He says to just look at the San Bruno pipeline explosion. PG&E did an inadequate job of checking that pipe, thought it was safe, if they thought of it at all. The refinery fire in Richmond, again, a high demand for a highly hazardous material led to increased risk.

"And the chance of something happening naturally is going to increase from such an intensity," he said. "That isn't always recognized."

In fact, he says it's increasingly unrecognized because industries believe the risk is low.

"It's why people drive without seat belts, it's all the things that people do where they think it'll never happen," Sposito said. "But we're seeing a pattern now of these industries that produce high demand products it's happening more."

Sposito says we're getting a wakeup call, and the lesson from Texas and San Bruno, and Richmond is that increased demand should come with increased attention.

"What does that mean it means more frequent inspection because you have more demand it means replacing things more frequently that you might otherwise because you've got the demand and the stress."

On Thursday night Congressman George Miller, D-Concord, reports that Democrats in the House Workforce Committee are reintroducing legislation to expand OSHA coverage. That's the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Civil penalties would be adjusted. That hasn't happened in more than 20 years.

The bill would authorize felony prosecutions for employers who knowingly violate safety regulations. And it would require OSHA to investigate all cases of death and serious injury.

U.S. Rep. Miller said Thursday that the Texas explosion is just the latest reminder that communities have a great deal at stake.


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