The managers of the Galveston grain elevator that exploded Tuesday night, killing at least 16 persons, were critized openly yesterday by the Agriculture Department for their "open animosity" to federal safety inspectors.
Memoranda released yesterday by the Agriculture Department showed that members of the Federal Grain Inspection Service two months ago had asked the Farmer Export Co, to clean up the dust accumulating in its elevator. The Farmers Export Co. "angrily" responded that they felt they were "being harassed by the federal inspectors.
"Their attitude seems to be that Congress imposed the Federal Grain inspection Service on them," said a Nov. 2 memo written by FGIS inspector James S. Phelps to Deputy Administrator David R. Galliart, "and that they may have to have us around, but they don't have to cooperate."
Phelps said he had discussed "on numerous occasions" with Farmers Export the rising dust levels in its elevator, its "unclean" working conditions and its practice of working its men "through meal breaks" to get as much grain moved out of the elevator as it could to ships in Galveston Bay.
"Space provided by the elevator is weevily, has rats living in the ceiling and the air conditioner doesn't work 75 per cent of the time," Phelps told Galliart. "When the air conditioner is not working and windows have to be opened, files in the laboratory [at the elevator] are unreal. Dust in the lab is so bad now that employees have to wear dust masks."
One Agriculture Department official who visited the Galveston elevator said that so much dust had built up inside that it was piled up like snowdrifts against the walls clogging the ducts of the air conditioner so badly they could no longer work.
"To make things even worse, the dust-collecting machinery in that elevator wasn't working well," said David Mangum deputy assistant administrator. They were in the process of fixing it when the explosion took place."
The Galveston explosion was one of three major grain elevator explosions in a week that killed more than 50, including 13 Agriculture Department inspectors. The worst of the three explosions was one that took place a week ago Thursday at a Continental Grain Co. elevator near New Orleans. It killed 35.
"The New Oreleans operation was considered one of the cleanest." Magnum said. "We were very surprised by that explosion."
The Agriculture Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administrator and the Environmental Protection Agency set up and interagency task force yesterday to look into the causes of the explosions and to find possible remedies to head off future explosions. One of the first things the task force did was to order federal grain inspectors to leave their posts if they felt that dust inside the elevators had risen to dangerous levels.
Inspectors at a grain elevator in Baltimore left their posts yesterday along with workers at the elevator who felt rising dust levels were making working conditions unsafe. The elevator was closed down when the workers left their jobs.
No one contacted yesterday in the federal government was willing to fix blame for the explosions, except to suggest that the hectic pace of work at many export elevators had created a climate where safety might take a back seat to business. There are 89 export elevators in the United States moving an estimated 3 billion bushels of grain a year out of the country.
"There are lots of people at work and a lot of machinery at work," Mangum said in an interview. "The dust levels in situations like these build up unavoidably."
Each of the three major explosions took place when the air inside the elevators dried to where the humidity was below 40 per cent. Mangum said the dry air inside the elevators almost surely created more hospitable conditions for a spark of some kind to trigger the dust explosion.
One theory discussed by the federal task force yesterday was that dust that had been collected in "bag rooms" outside the elevators had been brought back inside to mix with the grain for shipping. The returned dust could be drier than the dust gathering inside the elevators, and create a more hazardous environment.
"There has been one study of this possibilty by a farmers' cooperative in Kansas," said David Hawkins of the EPA. "Their tentative conclusion is that it is more hazardous."
OSHA said it plans to send out a "hazard alert" next week to all grain elevator operators outlining safety measures to guard against future explosions. Leland Bartelt, head of the Federal Grain Inspection Service warned that export elevators might have to be closed unless some solutions are found. "We cannot afford another tragedy," he said.