Rep. Barbara J. Mikulski (D-Md.) charged yesterday that workers at liquefied natural gas plants such as the one at Cove Point, Md., where a fatal explosion occurred four weeks ago, get less training than a federal job program offers "people who are going to work in soup kitchens."
Mikulski's comments came as the House Commerce subcommittee on energy and power began an investigation of regulations governing more than 100 LNG plants across the country.
Subcommittee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said the regulations reveal "an appalling lack of recognition" that special safeguards are needed to protect LNG, which is natural gas liquefied at 260 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The cove Point plant, 60 miles southeast of Washington on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, was shut down by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after the Oct. 6 blash, which killed one worker and badly burned another.
The commission has since permitted Columbia Gas Corp., operator of the facility, to resume partial operation.
Cove Point is the largest of three LNG importing terminals in the nation. At full production, it can convert enough LNG back to natural gas to ship 650 million cubic feet a day by pipeline to customers in the East and Midwest.
James B. King, chairman of the National transportation Safety Board, testified that although NTSB investigators have failed to pin down the precise cause, they have confirmed initial reports that LNG leaked through an electrical terminal seal on one of the pumps that converts the fuel from liquid to gas, and that the gas vapors exploded when a worker pulled a circuit breaker to cut current to the faulty pump.
Because the evidence indicates that the explosion occurred as the result of the failure of equipment that apparently was manufactured and being operated within federal regulations, Reps. Dingell, Mikulski and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) think the entire range of specifications needs to be reexamined.
The Cove Point plant has been the subject of doomsday warnings from environmentalists, who contend its location within three miles of a nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs has compounded the dangers.
Safety board chairman King raised the question of the training of employes, saying that although there is no indication of guestionable action at the time of the accident, investigators have found in other instances that "a tragedy has been averted because a well-trained individual made a difficult and correct decision at a critical moment".
Markey charged that the six-week on-the-job training given employes at the LNG plant is "seat of the pants" instructions to workers who, Mikulski said, "work in a control room that looks like something out of Star Trek."
Max Levy, vice president of Columbia LNG Cor., said most employes have a high school education and that they are promoted after answering questions orally from a foreman who walks around the 1,200-acre facility with them. Levy added that "because we are an equal-opportunity employer, written tests might be discriminatory, so we don't give them."