Maria Gutzeit: Industrial ‘accidents’ aren’t accidental

The Environmental Justice movement has loomed large lately, and rightly so. With problems like the nearby Aliso Canyon gas leak, lead contamination from the Exide battery plant, and refinery explosions in Torrance, people and politicians are wondering if businesses can operate safely.

In some areas, certain types of businesses are being banned. Stricter rules are being proposed either by state or local agencies. I believe both of those miss the greater issue, and that is the Human Factor.

The concept of the Human Factor was coined by UC Berkeley Civil Engineering Professor Emeritus Bob Bea, who investigated disasters including the Deepwater Horizon, Katrina, and, most recently, Oroville.

He found in most cases it is not a design or technology failure, but bad human decisions, that cause problems. That is certainly true in industrial operations.

We benefit from a strong industry that provides both high-paying jobs and needed services. With a degree in chemical engineering and a 30-year career in environmental compliance, I can say many businesses operate well.

However, I have never seen one in 100 percent compliance with all the regulations. And I have seen some that completely ignore major regulations, flying under the radar as long as they can and pleading ignorance or hardship if their out-of-compliance operations are noticed.

Decades ago, facilities of any significant size hired trained environmental and operating engineers. This has fallen out of favor. Engineers are reassigned to cover whole regions, and daily duties are often passed to a maintenance or human resources staff.

Environmental personnel also were asked to handle safety, and vice versa. Knowing how to maintain a pressurized system filled with toxic chemicals isn’t quite the same as knowing ergonomics and machine guarding, but a lot of companies bought into this cost-saving myth as well.

Unqualified people can occupy key positions and the upper management may not know, or care.

Businesses handling hazardous materials are normally on a regular inspection circuit. Far too many managers believe if the inspector doesn’t find anything, they are doing A-OK.

Even the best inspector, with the best training, cannot know all the ins and outs of everything from ammonia refrigeration to oil refinery operations to water treatment to scrap metal melting.

All of those industries, and many more, use chemicals that can literally kill their workers or their neighbors. Yet these inspectors are given perhaps one day a year on a site to discover everything that could be wrong, and protect the public.

My gut, from a lot of driving all over industrialized California, tells me that about 25 percent of our pollutants are coming from completely unpermitted, unregulated sources. Whether it be the outdoor operation that somehow didn’t get the memo about stormwater permitting, to the guy who orders barrels of solvents shipped to a storage unit to manufacture cleaning wipes, to the people buying out-of-state power equipment that doesn’t meet state air standards, a lot is slipping through the cracks.

This is an unfair advantage compared to legit businesses trying to comply with the rules. Rogue operators further damage the public’s perception of industrial operations in general.

What we have arrived at is a situation where some businesses are trying valiantly to comply and provide goods and services and vital jobs, others are trying halfheartedly, and some are just blatantly not trying and ruining the communities around them.

Regulations haven’t prevented this, and more regulations won’t make it better. But two things can: management commitment and technology.

The good actors in industry must embrace true management awareness and commitment to environmental compliance in very complex operating situations. Facilities can absolutely operate safely if they invest in continual improvements, hire enough skilled staff and take proactive, preventative steps.

Technology can help as well. Data mining can be used to cross check utility bills, chemical shipments, and business licenses to make sure unpermitted operations don’t go neglected for years.

Tech tools can also be used to analyze everything from stack emissions to equipment replacement frequencies to operating limit exceedances. Checklists and regulations have proven inadequate, especially when overworked, underfunded humans mix with complex situations. Why not move from old-school to efficiency?

Rather than wringing our hands at every “accident” that we all saw coming, or passing more rules and having press conferences, if we are serious about compliance and our communities, we need to admit the Human Factor at play – and respond accordingly.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected water official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.

 

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