Thursday, December 14, 2006

Did political deal in Congress contribute to fatal Milwaukee explosion?

National rules don't require inspection of propane tanks, pipes

By CARRIE ANTLFINGER Associated Press Writer
14 December 2006

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Guidelines covering propane tanks and pipes nationwide do not require inspections or tests by any government agency once they're installed, no matter how old the systems might be.

And efforts to regulate propane on the federal level failed in the 1990s when Congress passed a law preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring propane facilities to come up with risk management plans. The law was sponsored by an Oklahoma senator who received campaign donations from the propane industry.

A blast following a propane leak at a Milwaukee warehouse last week leveled the building, killed three people and injured dozens. Workers were testing a backup propane system that is more than 30 years old.

One Wisconsin lawmaker now says more regulation of propane systems is needed.

State Rep. Pedro Colon, a Democrat who represents the district where the explosion occurred, said he didn't know propane tanks and pipes were not inspected.

"That's amazing. That's amazing, especially because it's terribly flammable," Colon said.

"I guess we are going to have to go and create the rule, because if we didn't do it before the explosion, we should do it now," he said.

Without federal oversight, regulation is left to the states, which have adopted variations of guidelines set by the National Fire Protection Association. States also delegate responsibility in some cases to municipalities.

Ted Lemoff, a principle gases engineer at the association, said those rules cover installation of tanks and pipes but there is no requirement for governmental agencies to reinspect or retest those used for propane and other liquefied petroleum gases -- even if they date back to World War II. The tanks and pipes are built to last, he said.

Companies must maintain them, and workers who fill the tanks are required to check them, Lemoff said. Problems are usually detected when someone smells propane, checks the propane level or notices dead vegetation killed by leaking gas.

The association is open to amending its guidelines, he said.

"Normally they don't go and look for what might go wrong, but they react to incidents that they become aware of," Lemoff said.

State and federal authorities are still investigating the blast at Milwaukee's Falk Corp. Jeffrey Remsik, a spokesman for the company's mechanical contractor, said his workers were observing the annual operational test when they smelled and saw liquid propane coming from underground.

Evan Zeppos, a Falk spokesman, said he didn't have the details on what is done during the annual test, but it was conducted to "ensure it is properly operating and in good condition."
Neither the state of Wisconsin or the city of Milwaukee requires regular tests or inspections of propane systems.

Lemoff, of the national fire association, said states and municipalities can add regulations to his group's guidelines when they establish their codes, but he knew of none that require inspections of propane pipes and tanks.

The city of Milwaukee used to inspect propane tanks -- but not pipes -- every three years, said Todd Weiler, spokesman for the city Department of Neighborhood Services. But that stopped in 1999 when a state administrative code was changed to exempt propane tanks from inspections, Weiler said.

State Department of Commerce spokesman Tony Hozeny was unable to find an explanation Wednesday night as to why Wisconsin changed its code.

The same year, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., won passage of legislation preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring propane facilities to develop risk management plans. With 63 other flammable and 77 toxic materials, the EPA requires facilities to detail their chemicals on site, maintenance schedules, and safety and health procedures.

Inhofe said at the time that the legislation was needed to protect small propane dealers and small farmers from the cost of complying with a 1996 EPA rule that would have required risk management plans of facilities keeping 10,000 pounds or more of propane in a tank or set of interconnected tanks. The EPA engaged in "regulatory overreaching" by requiring propane facilities come up with plans, Inhofe said.

Federal Election Commission records show he received $3,398 in monetary and in-kind contributions from the National Propane Gas Association's political action committee during the 1999-2000 election cycle.

Robert Baylor, communications director of the National Propane Gas Association, said it fought the EPA, even filing a lawsuit, because its rules would have duplicated the National Fire Protection Association's guidelines. The NPGA claimed EPA oversight would have cost the industry $1 billion in paperwork and not improved safety.

"If you are going to spend a billion dollars to improve safety, spend it on something that is going to be meaningful," Baylor said.

But Jim Belke, a chemical engineer who worked on the EPA rules, said they included additional requirements, such as a worst-case scenario analysis, an accident history report and a risk management plan submitted to EPA.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group, said the guidelines devised by the fire association aren't adequate. He also called Inhofe's law "foolhardy."

"The industry sued to be exempt from safety requirements, and then Senator Inhofe jumped in and gave them a special deal," he said. "And now you have a disaster as a possible consequence that ought to be investigated."

After being questioned by the Associated Press, Inhofe, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, issued a statement this week. He expressed sympathy for the Milwaukee blast victims.

O'Donnell "is apparently making wild accusations that a bill that I wrote, that passed the Senate and was signed into law by President Clinton back in 1999, is somehow responsible," he said. "This claim is simply untrue, despicable and trivializes the losses of those who suffered and died in the explosion."


Anonymous said...

Mr. O'Donnell: I notice that you are not a credentialed safety professional, so I think it is very reckless of you to out-of-hand bash the NFPA, an organization that has actually been doing some good.

Anonymous said...

I take it the author of that comment was not related to anyone who died or was injured in the explosion.