(Washington, DC - November 20, 2002) The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is expected to vote today on the final staff report into the root causes of the January 16, 2002, hydrogen sulfide gas leak at the Georgia-Pacific Naheola pulp and paper mill in Pennington, Alabama, which took the lives of two workers and injured another eight.
The staff investigation concluded that plant management had not followed good engineering and process safety practices when they earlier connected a drain from a tank truck unloading area into an acidic process sewer system. On the day of the incident, sodium hydrosulfide -- a process chemical that had spilled in the unloading area - reacted to release deadly hydrogen sulfide gas when it contacted acidic material in the sewer. The toxic gas vented from the sewer through a nearby fiberglass manhole cover and engulfed the workers. The two deaths and all but one of the injuries occurred among employees of Burkes Construction who were working in the vicinity on an unrelated construction project.
Investigators found that the injured contract workers had not been adequately trained on the hazards of hydrogen sulfide and attempted to rescue fallen coworkers, leading to further injuries among the would-be rescuers. Investigators also concluded that neither Georgia-Pacific nor the previous plant owners adequately analyzed or controlled the hazards of the sewer system, including the potential for hazardous chemical reactions.
CSB staff will present the Board with several safety recommendations designed to prevent recurrences. Included is a recommendation that Georgia-Pacific Corporation review sewer system safety at all its plants to prevent the inadvertent mixing of potentially reactive chemicals - including those that can form toxic gases. Investigators will also recommend that Georgia-Pacific identify plant areas (such as truck unloading areas) where there is a risk of hydrogen sulfide release and require appropriate safeguards and training for all workers in those areas.
"I am troubled that despite the well-known hazards of hydrogen sulfide gas, reactive incidents of this kind continue to occur. As the Board found earlier, the problem of hazardous chemical reactions is not confined to chemical reactors: companies should look to sewers, storage tanks, and other unconventional vessels as well," according to Carolyn W. Merritt, Chairman of the CSB and a veteran of the paper industry. "This tragic incident also underscores the critical importance of appropriate safety training and equipment for personnel who work where hydrogen sulfide may be present - rescuers can often become victims themselves."
In September 2002, the CSB completed a special investigation which recommended that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develop more comprehensive regulatory coverage for reactive hazards.
The CSB public meeting will be webcast live and without charge on the website csb.gov. An archive of the webcast will also be available within several days. The broadcast begins at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (9 a.m. Central). The Windows Media Player, available from www.microsoft.com, is needed to view the webcast. The full report with recommendations is expected to be posted on the web site shortly after the meeting.
The CSB is an independent federal agency established in 1998 with the mission to protect workers, the public, and the environment by investigating and preventing chemical accidents. The CSB determines the root causes of these accidents and makes safety recommendations to government agencies, companies, and other organizations. The CSB does not issue fines or citations or apportion responsibility for accidents. Additional information is available from csb.gov.
For further information contact Sandy Gilmour Communications at (202) 261-7614 or (202) 251-5496 (cell).