Agencies not working together on ConAgra probe

Staff WriterJune 23, 2009 

— Two weeks after a deadly blast rocked ConAgra's Slim Jim factory killing three and injuring dozens more, the two agencies investigating the explosion still haven't agreed on how to work together.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the state Department of Labor are both conducting independent investigations into what went wrong and have not yet been able to agree on how to share the site and the physical evidence at the plant.

"In this case, as in other cases both agencies have an interest in the same evidence, we would hope to get an agreement in place governing the handling of the site as soon as possible," said Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the chemical board.

Representatives from the two agencies could not explain the delay. The agencies have exchanged and rejected several versions of a written agreement that stipulates how key pieces of evidence will be handled and tested.

"I'm not certain why there's not an agreement," said Department of Labor spokesman Neal O'Briant.

Both agencies said their separate investigations have not yet been hampered by the lack of a written site-sharing agreement.

"OSHA has been working cooperatively on the scene with the CSB folks," O'Briant said. "They're not butting heads."

Chemical Safety Board investigators announced Thursday that they suspect workers venting a natural gas line into an interior pump room released vapors that led to the explosion. The gas line was being connected to a commercial water heater.

The safety board, an independent federal agency, aims to uncover the causes of the explosion and will publish a narrative of events leading up to and following the blast.

The Department of Labor is inspecting the plant for possible violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines. O'Briant said the agency will not release information until the investigation is closed.

"The two agencies have complementary purposes," said Horowitz, the chemical board spokesman. "They are looking at regulatory compliance. We are looking at root causes of the accident and making safety recommendations."

State labor departments and the chemical board must often work in proximity at the sites of industrial accidents, sharing physical evidence and conducting separate witness interviews. The N.C. Department of Labor and the chemical board have worked together in three incidents in the last eight years.

After the investigation into the explosion at the West Pharmaceutical plant in Kinston in 2003, OSHA adopted new guidelines regarding combustible dust.

"Generally, it's been a positive relationship, and there's been good coordination," Horowitz said.

He added, however, that he could not yet say the same of the relationship between the two agencies in Garner.

"I hope we'll be able to work quickly to come to an agreement soon," he said, "and we certainly respect the work that they do."

naureen.khan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4633

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