Savanna Morning News
By Larry Peterson
U.S. Rep. John Barrow wants faster action on combustible dust, which fueled last year’s deadly disaster at Imperial Sugar Co.’s local refinery.
The Savannah Democrat is reviving legislation to require the federal government to enact emergency standards concerning the hazard.
Barrow announced his move in the wake of last week’s final report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on the Feb. 7, 2008, explosions and fire. The board blamed the 14 fatalities mostly on company officials, who it said long knew the dangers of sugar dust but didn’t eliminate them.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has begun a lengthy process that could lead to tough new rules on combustible dust.
Barrow and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., pushed a bill through the house to mandate new rules last year after OSHA balked at calls for it to do so. The bill called for both temporary emergency rules and permanent ones. It passed overwhelmingly in the House but stalled in the Senate.
Barrow and Miller reintroduced the measure this year, but shelved it when OSHA announced its rule-making effort.
But Barrow now says that will take too long.
To read more about the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery explosion, view hundreds of photos and videos, and see documents from the investigation, go to savannahnow.com/news/explosion
“Given the continued threat of combustible-dust explosions and fires,” he said, “we need a temporary standard to prevent tragedies like the one we had at Imperial Sugar.
” … The hard reality is that it could be years at best before … regulations are in place. Meanwhile, the risk of another combustible-dust explosion or fire still exists.”
So Barrow is again pushing for the legislation, which would require OSHA to adopt emergency regulations.
The measure would tell OSHA to issue – within 90 days – an interim standard. It would require better housekeeping, engineering controls, worker training and a written combustible-dust safety program.
“People’s lives are at stake, and we can’t afford the time it will take for a permanent standard to work its way through the bureaucracy,” Barrow said.
Miller, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, supports Barrow’s renewed effort.
“The chairman believes that there is still a real need to enact legislation in order to prevent these horrific explosions,” said Miller spokesman Aaron Albright. “A solid bipartisan majority of the House was on board already last Congress.”
Chris Crawford, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, one of about two dozen Republicans to vote for the bill last year, said Kingston will do so again.
“You would think somewhere between the administration’s executive power and the legislation,” Kingston said in an e-mail, “we could come up with a balanced and workable solution for both the short and long term.” However, Albright acknowledged that, as was the case last year, the Senate could be a road block.
Georgia’s two U.S. senators supported the OSHA rule-making effort after the Chemical Safety Board issued its report last week.
But Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans, said in a joint statement Monday that they are wary about emergency rules.
Chambliss and Isakson agreed with board chairman John Bresland that emergency standards seldom withstand court scrutiny.
Bresland voiced that view last week when asked at a news conference why the board didn’t urge OSHA to adopt emergency rules.
“Moreover,” the senators said, “these temporary rules only add confusion to the regulatory process.”
They said they hope OSHA will “promulgate effective permanent standards as expeditiously as possible … to prevent future tragedies.”
Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the White House had said the president would veto the bill if it passed.
The Obama White House did not respond to requests earlier this year for comment on the Barrow-Miller bill.
OSHA spokesman Michael Wald said Monday that it is the agency’s policy not to comment on pending legislation.