The American Federation of Grain Millers, AFL-CIO, is up in arms over grain elevator explosions after one in Council Bluffs, Iowa, last month killed five people. That brought the death toll for such incidents to 30 since 1979, according to the Agriculture Department, and to 194 since 1958. At issue is $50,000 in the $5.6 million appropriation for Agriculture's Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS). The union claims FGIS is required by Congress to spend up to $50,000 this year "to continue the scientific investigation of grain elevator and mill explosions" and that, so far, it has not been doing that spending.

The directive is actually in the committee report, not in the legislation itself. That point aside, it seems clear USDA is in a holding pattern on spending money to study grain elevator safety. Dr. Kenneth A. Gilles, chief of FGIS, said that USDA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are awaiting the results of a previously funded four-volume study from the National Academy of Sciences; two volumes due in June will address the mechanisms of grain elevator explosions and recommend ways to avoid them. "When we see the studies, we'll be in a position to act," said Gilles.

In the meantime, USDA's effort has consisted of naming one official in its Office of Administration to "coordinate activities," in Gilles' words, and appointing a task force of USDA chiefs to worry about the problem. The task force has yet to meet. "As far as FGIS is concerned, we have no authority to do inspections," Gilles said. That authority belongs with OSHA, unless it has delegated responsibility, which it has done in 23 states, including Iowa. Meanwhile, OSHA is working to establish standards for grain-handling facilities and expects to have a proposed rule in the fall.