Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Goodyear Explosion Hearing

The Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection held a hearing on Wednesday that had one of the most misleading titles of any congressional hearing that I have ever seen. It was entitled: "The Goodyear Explosion: Ensuring Our Nation is Secure by Developing a Risk Management Framework for Homeland Security". Only two of the witnesses had anything to say about the explosion at the Goodyear Chemical plant. The other four witnesses addressed risk management and completely ignored the Goodyear explosion in their prepared testimony.

Incident Background

On Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 at about 7:30 a.m. CDT there was a ‘small explosion’ in a ‘heat exchanger’. As a result of the explosion there was a small fire and some of the refrigerant, anhydrous ammonia, was released. The facility was evacuated. Initial news reports said that six people were taken to local hospitals for injuries related to ammonia exposure; one of which was ‘life-threatening’.

After the ammonia fumes had dissipated hours after the accident, crews went back into the facility to survey the damage. After moving some of the wreckage the body of an employee was found. Early on there were questions raised about the possibility of her being rescued if teams had gone back into the facility earlier. According to testimony at the hearing provided by her husband, Mrs. McInnis was killed in the explosion.

Goodyear Incident Testimony

As I mentioned earlier only two of the witnesses addressed the Goodyear incident in their prepared testimony; Mr. McInnis, a retired Goodyear employee and the husband of the supervisor killed in the explosion, and Mr. John S. Morawetz, International Chemical Workers Union Council of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Mr. McInnis provided the committee with a graphically drawn word picture of his wife, Gloria McInnis, and her roll as a veteran Goodyear employee of 31 years. He also described the confusion on the day of the incident when the company first reported that his wife‘was fine’ only to be told later that she was found dead hours after the accident. While confusion is understandable in any industrial accident of this scale the extent of the confusion at this scene goes beyond that, as exemplified by this extract from Mr. McInnis’ testimony:

  • "I did not understand why the Houston Fire Department did not go into the plant and search for employees. But my son’s firefighter friend explained that the Department had considered going in and told Goodyear several times they were willing to go in but Goodyear was adamant that everyone was accounted for. The Department weighed that against the danger to their rescue crews and decided it was not worth the risk since Goodyear told them everyone was safe. The Fire Department left the plant and then had to be called back after Gloria was found by plant workers."

Mr. McInnis concluded his prepared testimony by describing a series of changes that he had seen made at the facility that he claims decreased safety at the facility. These changes include:

  • Elimination of the facility fire department,
  • Reduction in training time for EMS crews,
  • Replacement of experienced workers with contract crews with little experience,
  • Reduced expenditures on replacing old equipment,
  • Procedures that allow employees to be inaccurately accounted for.

The testimony of Mr. Morawetz did not directly address what happened in the Goodyear incident as he admittedly did not have any direct knowledge of that facility. He did provide a thorough review of a number of process safety, employee training, security and regulatory issues that might have a bearing on the on-going investigation. He has obviously spent some time on the production floor at multiple chemical facilities and is passionate in his concern for employee safety.

Risk Management Testimony

The prepared testimony of Robert D. Jamison (DHS), Norman J. Rabkin (GAO), Dr. James Jay Carafano (Heritage Foundation), and John P. Paczkowski(Port Authority of NY and NJ) the issue of risk management and the development of a risk management framework within DHS to develop and foster a risk management focus in the homeland defense community.

While this is without a doubt a valuable exercise, the risk management protocols discussed in these prepared testimonies would have had little effect on the incident at the Goodyear Chemical Plant in Houston, TX. It was as if the subcommittee only had a limited amount of time and conducted hearings on two different subjects at the same time.


It always distresses me to hear reports of chemical companies taking shortcuts on employee safety. Having spent 12 years as a process chemist in a specialty chemical manufacturing environment I have a deep and abiding concern about the development and maintenance of safe chemical manufacturing processes.

What does process safety have to do with chemical facility security? First it the tools of process safety can be directly used in developing facility security plans. A comprehensive understanding of the chemicals on site will provide the security management team with a better understanding of the risks associated with those chemicals.

On a more fundamental level, a company that does a poor job of maintaining a process safety program will get only limited support for its security planning from the employees at the facility. More over, a record of incidents such as the one reported by Mr. McInnis does little to provide confidence to the surrounding community. Both of these provides a potential breeding ground for dissatisfied personnel that could support or lead an attack on that facility.

Not only that, but these types of news stories also shine a bright light on facilities that, because of their poor history maintaining an effective process safety program, are probably doing a poor job of protecting against possible terrorist attacks on their facilities. Finally, this type incident makes it easier for Congress to decide that the chemical industry cannot be trusted to develop adequate security procedures without detailed oversight.

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