(Washington, DC - November 22, 2002) The U.S. Chemical Safety Board voted 5-0 on November 20 to approve 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 Board concluded that plant management had not followed good engineering and process safety practices when in 1995 they connected a drain from a tank truck unloading area into an acidic process sewer system. The plant was then owned by the James River Corporation, which later merged with Fort Howard and was acquired by Georgia-Pacific.
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.
The Board 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. 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 Board recommended 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. The Board also requested 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.
"This tragedy raises a number of significant safety issues that likely warrant further study," according to Board Chairman Carolyn W. Merritt, herself a veteran of the paper industry. "We need to examine how many other incidents of this kind have occurred: is this an isolated event or a symptom of a larger problem? I am directing the CSB staff to look into past events involving toxic gas releases from acid-reactive materials, like sodium hydrosulfide and other sulfide and cyanide salts. We are particularly interested in releases or exposures involving sewers and other disposal systems. We need to study how the paper industry and other industries manage these reactive materials, and whether current practices, training, standards, and guidance are adequate to ensure the safety of workers and the public. Also of interest are the recommendations from sodium hydrosulfide manufacturers for safe handling, spill control, and disposal of these materials: are they consistent, are they sufficient, and are they being followed? I have asked the staff to report back to the Board by December 11 with an outline for the study. During this process we will solicit significant input from the American Forest and Paper Association and other interested trade and labor groups."
The CSB public meeting was broadcast live on the internet; a video archive and transcript of the proceedings is available from the website csb.gov. The full Georgia-Pacific report with recommendations will be posted on the web site shortly.
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).