To often we only hear bad news. We need to also focus on some good news about good people and the people who help them. It gives us all hope.
Original Message ----- From: Adrienne Anderson Sent: Sunday, May 22, 2005 8:53 AM Subject: CU ALUMNI DON HOLMSTROM PROFILED AS "SAFETY THEOLOGIAN"
Below find an article about health and safety expert Don Holmstrom, a CU Law School graduate, in today’s Houston Chronicle.
Before leaving Colorado to accept this assignment as Chief Investigator for the horrific British Petroleum refinery explosion in Texas which occurred in March, Holmstrom represented the CU Environmental Studies Club students in a Colorado Open Records Act request of the University of Colorado’s administration in March. The students’ goal was to determine why my courses were axed and I was told my teaching career at CU was being ended, after eleven years of successful teaching, highly ranked by students. With Holmstrom’s guidance in the process, students obtained evidence of not only pressure from polluters on CU’s administration to undermine my job in apparent retaliation for my research and public disclosures on significant environmental health and safety threats in the state, but also high level meddling by officials of Colorado’s right wing Governor Bill Owens who, records show, has been inadequately enforcing Colorado’s environmental laws and doing sweetheart deals with polluters.
CU officials and Environmental Studies Director Jim White had attempted to deny there was any such outside political or corporate pressure.
Last year, Holmstrom served as a guest lecture to my “Environmental Ethics” classes on his work with citizens and local unions to watchdog the Gates Rubber Plant brownfields redevelopment site in Denver, where the highest levels of a cancer-causing toxic solvent known anywhere in the Rocky Mountain region have been found migrating offsite in groundwater and under neighboring residential areas.
Holmstrom also is representing the Paper Allied and Chemical Workers Local 5-477 in filing a Friend of the Court Brief to the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals (attached), urging reinstatement of a federal whistleblower judge’s 2001 ruling in my favor, with evidence of the retaliation and campaign of defamation waged against me while serving on the Metro Wastewater Board of Directors from 1996-1998, representing sewage plant workers. I had agreed to serve in this capacity at Don Holmstrom’s request, when he served as President of the union representing lab workers at the public facility. During that time, and as a component of my CU-related service, I discovered in my research that the sewage district had a plan of allow contaminated water from underneath the plutonium-contaminated Lowry Landfill Superfund Site to be discharged to the plant over the next 50 years, though its workers are not even protected by OSHA. Numerous CU Environmental Studies students, equally alarmed at this plan, contributed valuable research to augment and advance this investigation over the years, in the public interest.
It has been an honor and a privilege to work with Don Holmstrom over the last twenty years, in various occupational and environmental health campaigns uniting workers and residents for safer workplaces and communities. Further, he has shared his knowledge with my Environmental and Ethnic Studies students, and worked with CU leaders to negotiate for better and safer jobs during CU’s construction of its new law school.
It’s alumni like Don Holmstrom who deserve to be honored in CU’s “Hall of Excellence” in the Old Main Building. Perhaps interested members of the CU community can work toward this end. Presently in the “Hall of Excellence” which I toured with my students this past semester, hangs the picture of Peter Teets, former President of Lockheed Martin, who presided over the Colorado missile plant which was illegally contaminating a downstream public water supply serving parts of metro Denver. From Colorado, Teets then went on to head the entire company, with the second worst record of law-breaking in the country, according to the Project on Government Oversight. Just before resigning as Bush’s Undersecretary of the U.S. Air force recently, Teets exonerated the Air Force Academy officials who had failed to prosecute numerous rapes of women cadets. Also in CU’s “Hall pf Excellence” is Lynn Cheney, a former Lockheed Martin board member, and wife of Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney. Lynn Cheney also serves on the board of ACTA, a group which has been seeking to undermine academic freedom in higher education, and issued a “hit list” against professors in 2001 who had raised questions about U.S. Foreign policy and made statements critical of Bush administration responses to the 9-11 attack.
I, for one, would like to see true American heroes like Donald Holmstrom among CU’s Alumni honored in the “Hall of Excellence,” who have worked for the betterment of our communities and workplaces, and enforcement of our laws, rather than those who’ve been at the helm of some of the worst environmental disasters in our country, and who are working to silence needed voices and undermine true democracy during these most disturbing of times.
And please join me in thanking Don Holmstrom for taking on this important and difficult challenge at the US Chemical Safety Board, and for all he’s done to advance worker and community health and safety here in Colorado over the last twenty years of his career. Don can be reached at [email protected]
May 21, 2005, 8:37PM
Investigator answers call
Texas City blast inquiry is another challenge for 'safety theologian' By ANNE BELLI Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Kim Christensen / For the Chronicle For Don Holmstrom, taking over the BP explosion probe was a chance to serve his country and address the biggest safety issue of his career.
Plunging headfirst down Idaho's white-water rapids in a kayak may not seem a likely pastime for someone who preaches safety.
Neither does hiking the entire Continental Divide or hunting buffalo in South Dakota.
Despite his appetite for adventure, federal investigator Don Holmstrom has an uncommon passion for safety — for workers and the public, if not himself — that surpasses even his love of the great outdoors, those who know him say.
"It's his religion," said Leslie Moody, executive director of the Denver-based Front Range Economic Strategy Center, which works to strengthen public safety policies and practices in Colorado.
Holmstrom, 53, was the group's director of policy and training when he was chosen last month by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to lead the inquiry into the deadly BP Texas City refinery blast.
The March 23 explosion, the worst U.S. refinery accident in recent memory, killed 15 people and injured more than 170.
The CSB, once dogged by internal problems of its own, said it wanted the most experienced person it could find to lead the high-profile inquiry.
So the agency made a beeline for Holmstrom, who had worked for the CSB before and had key roles in two other refinery accident investigations.
"I always talk about Don as kind of our safety theologian," CSB chairman Carolyn Merritt said. "By that I mean that he has insight into the causes of accidents and what happened that goes far beyond the individual. He's able to look from 30,000 feet and see lots of different system issues that are involved in accidents."
For his part, Holmstrom says that even though he was reluctant to leave his beloved Colorado, he couldn't turn it down.
"This was a horrible disaster," he said. "And it was an opportunity for me to come back and serve my country and address safety on a scale I had not before."
Change of scenery
Now his temporary home is Texas City, where he's leading a team of investigators and consultants. They're analyzing blast patterns, interviewing witnesses, scouring control room records, reviewing plant designs and culling hundreds of pieces of physical evidence trying to determine why a section of the refinery's isomerization unit exploded. And why so many people died as a result.
In the end, Holmstrom will deliver to the board a comprehensive, root-cause report — due out in about a year — that already is expected to contain significant safety recommendations to not only BP but also the chemical industry.
"This is an investigation that has international interest," Merritt said. "Fifteen people died here, and it is an outrage. I think this is one of the things that brought Don back to us."
Holmstrom graduated in 1974 from Stanford University with majors in biology and English, then attended the University of Colorado School of Law, earning a degree in 1978.
Rather than go to work for a big law firm, however, he took a job as an operator at the Ultramar Diamond Shamrock refinery in Denver.
The flexibility of his position allowed him to travel throughout the West pursuing his passion for kayaking and other outdoor adventures. Meanwhile, he learned the ins and outs of refinery operations.
In 1986 Holmstrom began practicing law part-time, representing workers in employment, health and safety matters.
He also became increasingly involved in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, and became president of the Denver local in 1990.
During that time he was a high-profile voice for workers and focused heavily on worker safety issues, according to those who knew him then. He led several accident investigations at the Denver refinery, helped develop a process safety training program, and worked with the company to develop the first process safety management committee representing both union and management. He ultimately was promoted to chief operator.
"He is basically dedicated to better health and safety conditions for workers and the public," said Mike Sprinker, director of health and safety for the International Chemical Workers Union Council. "Plus, he is a very fair and objective person."
During his tenure as local union president, Holmstrom pushed for funding of the CSB, which had been created under the 1990 Clean Air Act but had received no federal money. Union and industry representatives alike supported creation of the CSB, and it was formed to conduct independent investigations of chemical accidents much like the National Transportation Safety Board investigates airplane crashes.
Like the NTSB, it cannot issue fines or citations, but it can make recommendations to companies, lawmakers and others to try to prevent similar accidents.
President Clinton was preparing to abolish the agency altogether when, under pressure from Congress and others, he agreed to finally fund it in 1998 with an initial allocation of $4 million.
The next year Holmstrom was recruited to work for the agency. Over the following four years he held several positions, including accident investigator, and helped develop its recommendations program.
But those early years were ugly for the fledgling agency. Political infighting among the board's five members, appointed by the president, prompted a scathing General Accounting Office report in 2000.
Among the findings were an unacceptable backlog of investigations, questionable spending and the lack of basic policies and procedures.
The board was revamped soon after the report was presented to a congressional subcommittee, and the agency began to turn around. While it had completed just one investigation in 1998 and two each in 1999- 2001, it closed eight in 2003 and four more in 2004. It has 11 open investigations, including the BP blast and a tank explosion at the Marcus Oil and Chemical facility in Houston in December.
"It took them three or four years, but they finally hit their stride," said Scott Berger, director of the Center for Chemical Process Safety, noting that the CSB budget remains modest at $9 million. "If you think about what they are doing with the resources they they've got, I think they're doing darn well."
Gerald Poje, a former CSB member who stepped down in November, said Holmstrom was a valuable, reliable staff member during those initial rocky times.
"I thought that Don did a fair amount of good work analyzing the physical factors and the human factors involved in accidents," he said. "He played an important role in the resetting of the ship."
Holmstrom led the investigation into a 1999 fire at the Tosco Avon refinery in Martinez, Calif., and he developed the recommendations following the investigation of a 2001 sulfuric acid tank explosion at the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Delaware City, Del.
He also helped develop far-reaching recommendations to New York City officials following the CSB inquiry into the 2002 explosion of a Kaltech Industries facility. Those led to a revamp of the city's 85-year-old fire code.
"Their recommendation to do a major revision of the fire code was embraced not instantaneously but fairly quickly here in New York, and that is not an easy thing to do," said Jonathan Bennett, a spokesman for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. "I can't imagine the fire code would have been amended had they not made that recommendation."
Other work by the CSB also has drawn praise.
The Tosco report, which criticized management oversight, was one of the most thorough of several generated by local, state and federal governments on the accident, said California lawyer Gary Gwilliam, who represented an injured worker.
"It didn't pull any punches," he said.
Gwilliam said he also had personal contact with Holmstrom, whom he called "not only very thorough but very sensitive to my client, who had been badly burned."
Holmstrom left the CSB in the summer of 2003 to return to Colorado, where his daughters had decided to attend college. It wasn't long before he was recruited by Moody to work for Front Range.
While there, he organized more than 50 organizations to campaign for stronger state standards for the cleanup of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene, Moody said. And he helped persuade the University of Colorado to establish safety and environmental criteria in selecting construction contractors for a $400 million law school.
He was in the middle of other projects when in early April he got the call from the CSB.
Now back in his role as a neutral federal investigator, some in the industry wonder whether Holmstrom's strong union background will prevent him from being fair to management.
"I think that could influence how he looks at a job," said one industry source who knows Holmstrom but asked not to be named.
BP officials say they aren't worried that he won't give them a fair shake.
"We have not seen, nor are we looking for any reason to question the fairness or the objectivity of either agency or members of the investigation teams," BP spokesman Hugh Depland said.
Holmstrom offers reassuring words of his own.
"I think I am uniquely situated to be evenhanded," he said. "I worked in the industry for 18 years. I have been a union member, and I have worked with community groups. So I think I have seen perspectives from all sides."