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Senate passes two health-care worker safety bills prompted by InvestigateWest reporting

Two bills sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices passed unanimously through the Washington State Senate this week.

SB 5594 requires the state to establish a workplace standard regulating the handling of chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs. The standards would create safety rules to protect workers who come in contact with hazardous drugs, including chemotherapy agents. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduced the bill, which if signed into law could set precedents for other states.

“We’re on the cusp of obtaining a law that would be the first in the country to regulate hazardous drugs,” said Bill Borwegen, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union in Washington D.C., which represents over 1 million healthcare workers. Borwegen was part of National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health team that issued a strongly worded alert to healthcare workers about the need for extreme caution in handling the dangerous drugs.

InvestigateWest’s reporting showed that workplaces continue to be contaminated by such substances, resulting in potential exposures for healthcare workers who handle them. Exposure to these drugs can cause cancer, organ damage, reproductive effects and other health problems.

“We’re feeling really good about it,” said Ellie Menzies, Legislative Director for SEIU 1199 NW, which represents 22,000 healthcare workers in the state. “If we get this passed here, it will definitely help at the federal level.”

Worker safety advocates and occupational health experts have been trying for decades to get safety regulation to protect the millions of oncology nurses, pharmacists, technicians, janitors, and other service workers who are potentially exposed to unsafe drugs in the workplace.


Toxic acid puts millions at risk


CPI's national look at the danger

ConocoPhillips refinery's record in Washington

How Tesoro's Anacortes refinery embodies slipping safety culture of oil industry

How journalists collaborated to bring you this story

For 170,000 people living in and around Bellingham, it’s a distinctly chilling scenario: Something goes horribly wrong at the ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale and over the next 10 minutes 110,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid explodes into a cloud that goes on to burn the lungs of whole neighborhoods or towns, causing widespread shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain and possibly even death.

The ConocoPhillips refinery is the only refinery in Washington using a chemical known as hydrofluoric acid, described by federal health officials as a “highly corrosive . . . serious systemic poison.” The stuff is so toxic that it can harm people up to 14 miles downwind, government records show.  

“You mean the most deadly chemical ever invented?” asked environmental activist Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor. “I’ve worked on refinery issues for 25 years. This has been a major issue for at least that long because it is known as one of the most deadly chemicals ever invented.”

Confirms Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle:  “It’s horrible stuff. It’s some of the worst stuff in the spill-response world.”

ConocoPhillips refinery has been fined for air pollution, worker-safety violations

 By Robert McClure and Will Graff


ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale has been repeatedly fined by regional air-pollution inspectors and last year drew two citations from state workplace-safety regulators who said a fire there was caused by faulty maintenance.  

Refinery workers’ failure to lubricate a motor sparked the June 2010 fire, state records show. The motor, installed in 2008, required regular greasing, while the equipment it replaced had required only occasional maintenance, said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industries. State officials levied a fine of $6,300.

Previously, ConocoPhillips had actually invited state labor inspectors to come to the refinery to review worker-protection measures under a state law that allows the company to avoid punishment for shortcomings discovered by state inspectors, Castro said. The labor agency has not yet responded to an InvestigateWest request for records related to that consultation.

The fine imposed by L&I for the fire last year is dwarfed by the more than $200,000 in fines assessed on ConocoPhillips by the refinery’s air-pollution regulator, the Northwest Clean Air Agency, since 2005. That agency has issued the company a number of violation notices over the years, said Annie Naismith, the air-pollution regulator assigned to the ConocoPhillips facility, although the citations did not involve hydrofluoric acid.

Records show the refinery has been the subject of  38 violation notices since 1994, the latest time in 2008 when the facility emitted high levels of sulfur dioxide “due to poor or inadequate maintenance,” records state. That was at least the sixth time a sulfur dioxide violation was noted by the Clean Air Agency, records show.

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.

As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.

When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”

I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.


Shocking air safety breaches emerge nationwide in data analysis

See related content: NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

By Brant Houston, Investigative News Network; Robert McClure, InvestigateWest; and Kevin Crowe, The Watchdog Institute

A commercial airline pilot en route to San Diego International Airport looks out a window at 10,800 feet and sees a Lockheed S-3 Viking Navy jet coming right at him. 

“The captain quickly pulled up on the control column to avoid hitting the S3,” the co-pilot wrote in a report filed with federal officials. “He turned his head to the right, which made me look out of my window on the right. And the window was full of the S3.” 

The two planes passed within about 100 feet of each other. 

This is just one of thousands of examples of near-misses, bad communications, equipment failures, wildlife hits and sometimes just silly but dangerous errors contained in an aviation safety database collected and analyzed by NASA. 

A six-month examination of more than 150,000 reports filed by pilots and others in the aviation industry over the past 20 years reveals surprising and sometimes shocking safety breaches and close calls at local, regional and major airports throughout the country. 

A consortium of journalists working at six nonprofit investigative centers across the U.S. reviewed the records with Investigative News Network, of which they are members, and National Public Radio. To put the confidential reports into context, the journalists did extensive data analysis of the reports and conducted scores of interviews with pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation safety experts. 


NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

See related content: Aviation safety reports reveal frequent safety problems at airports, in sky

The number of reports filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System is soaring, but the funding for the staff handling the reports is grounded.

“We’re hitting records every day in terms of volume,” said Linda Connell of NASA, director of the system. “We could do more if we had more. … We’ve been flat-funded since 1997.”

Connell said all reports are reviewed within three days by a team of about 10 part-time air-safety experts with decades of combined experience as pilots, controllers and other related jobs.

But only 20 percent of the reports are processed fully – which means contacting the person who filed the report, summarizing it and then posting it in the database available to the public. The rest of the reports are not revealed.

The database amassed by NASA is valuable, air-safety experts say, because it allows air-safety professionals to quickly and confidentially report problems that often are the result of systemic flaws – flaws the system seeks to illuminate.

Connell said pilots, controllers and others are comfortable confessing their flubs to NASA because the agency has no power to punish them, yet is knowledgeable about aeronautics and air safety.                                     

In exchange, the system usually allows a pilot or controller who makes such a report to escape punitive action by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that licenses pilots and controllers.

 Encouraging frank disclosures is a good trade for the lack of prosecution, Connell said.


Reports reveal close calls in the skies over Washington

A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle. Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.

A pilot leaves Spokane’s Felts Field in a single-engine Cessna planning to touch down at Thun Field near Puyallup – but instead lands about 10 miles away at McChord Air Force Base, breaching security. Inbound to Spokane, another pilot in a 10-passenger, single-prop Cessna mistakenly lands at Fairchild Air Force Base.

While training near Everett, a student pilot comes within 100 feet of crashing into a plane inbound for a landing. Another student pilot coming into Bremerton barely avoids a midair collision when a small homebuilt aircraft darts in front of him, touches down and then takes off without stopping.

These are just a handful of the heart-stopping scenes portrayed in the words of the pilots, air traffic controllers and others involved in safety breaches in and around Washington airports over a 10-year period. At least twice a week on average from January 2000 to January 2010, a pilot or air traffic controller or other air-safety professional encounters a situation serious enough to contact a national safety-reporting system run by NASA, records show. InvestigateWest and KING 5 examined the reports filed with NASA, which seeks to uncover dangerous patterns before they turn to tragedy.

The results reveal that aircraft in Washington come perilously close to calamity on a surprisingly frequent basis. One of the most serious kinds of close calls, when planes nearly collide in midair, occurred 62 times, an average of about every two months.

Those were the close calls. But sometimes luck runs out. Planes collide.


Prostitution of children in Seattle mushrooms, while Portland's reputation suffers


Child prostitution appears to be mushrooming in Seattle, even though its I-5 sister city to the south, Portland, is more notorious for child sex trafficking.

“What I see on the ground is the problem is getting worse,” said Leslie Briner, a social worker who is also associate director of residential services for The Bridge, a nine-bed residential treatment program for teen prostitutes that opened in Seattle last June.

“The age is trending down and the frequency is trending up,” she said. The average age teens get into prostitution is 13.

In the Northwest, however, it’s Portland that has captured the national imagination as a hub of child prostitution.

Former CBS newsman Dan Rather called Portland “Pornland,” a model city that’s becoming “a major center for child trafficking.” ABC’s World News and Nightline called Portland one of the largest hubs for child sex trafficking in America.

The child prostitution story in the Northwest is very much a tale of two cities. And Seattle has consistently shown the most juveniles rounded up in prostitution crackdowns for three years running now. Despite Portland’s notoriety for teen prostitution, InvestigateWest reporting shows that the problem there may not be any worse than most large cities, including Seattle.

On Thursday, advocates for a bigger push to halt teen prostitution took their case to Olympia, where legislation is expected to be filed soon. And on Friday hundreds will gather in Portland for the third-annual Northwest Conference Against Trafficking, with talks from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and actress Daryl Hannah.