After concluding that a deadly 2011 explosion at the Carbide Industries plant in Rubbertown could have been prevented, the Federal Chemical Safety Board has approved recommendations aimed at making sure industries won’t have a chance to replicate the unsafe conditions—a move Rubbertown residents welcomed.
In March 2011, a furnace explosion killed two workers and injured two others. The workers were in the control room, which was twelve feet away from a Class A Electric Arc Furnace that burns at over 4,000 degrees. There aren’t many furnaces of Carbide’s size or capacity in America. And there weren’t many regulations on how those furnaces should be maintained or operated.
After a two-year investigation, the CSB concluded that the furnace was prone to smaller blows, and that some of those had blown out the windows in the control room. Carbide reinforced the windows and put in thicker glass, but didn’t move the control room. In the five months before the March 2011 explosion, 26 work orders had been filed to repair issues with the furnace.
The CSB’s recommendations aren’t regulations yet. They’re suggestions to industry and to the National Fire Protection Association. The suggestions include creating a committee to address the lack of regulations for furnaces like Carbide’s, and the creation of a mechanical integrity program.
Frequently in press appearances, CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso said the loss of life cannot be part of the cost of doing business. His fellow board members echoed that claim, and so did many of the members of the public who spoke at Thursday night’s meeting.
“My personal opinion is that’s criminal,” said union steelworker Gordon Nichols. “And it’s a shame in this country today that it’s not treated as criminal.”
Attorney Buddy Cutler, who represents the workers’ union, reinforced the sentiment that government must act to protect the workers, telling the board that in his experience “companies don’t self-regulate.”
Metro Councilwoman Attica Woodson Scott, whose district surrounds Rubbertown, told the board it didn’t make sense to have the meeting in downtown Louisville, rather than in a neighborhood closer to the scene of the accident. Scott said a more western location would’ve increased turnout, but she thanked the CSB for showing up.
“Management has a privilege of going home to places that are far from West Louisville,” she said. “They don’t have to wake up and try to go to bed to the smells that are emitted from plans in Rubberotwn. They don’t wake up and go to sleep thinking about their children’s safety. Thank you for holding Carbide accountable, and for reminding our community that we matter.”
It’s that feeling of being ignored that has long been at the heart of resident complaints over Rubbertown.
“Workers and people living near the fence line can no longer be seen as expendable,” says Eboni Cochran of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion. “By not making the move to inherently safer technology, at minimum you get releases that cause harm and nuisances to people. But at the other end of the spectrum, you get death, like there was at Carbide.”
At the end of the meeting, chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso restated that the deaths were preventable. In a statement issued earlier today, Carbide said it was supportive of the CSB’s investigation, and “additional safeguards and policies have been implemented that will further strengthen the safety and environmental performance at Carbide Industries.”