Company gets public spanking from CSB

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has publically expressed dismay and disappointment in a letter to Tesoro Corporation in San Antonio, TX. It is in regard the apparent unwillingness of the company to allow CSB investigators to come on site and continue with the investigation of an industrial accident or, if you prefer, incident. Apparently two workers were splashed with sulfuric acid and had to be choppered out for treatment.

From what I gather from the CSB letter, Tesoro doesn’t believe that the incident rises to the level of seriousness to justify a CSB investigation. That is my own interpretation.

At first blush it would seem that Tesoro has a point. While it is something that OSHA would cover, does it really necessitate attention by the CSB? By itself it seems questionable. But when you consider that Tesoro had an 7-fatality explosion and fire at its Anacortes refinery in April of 2010, perhaps the scrutiny seems less unreasonable.

The refinery explosion was determined to result from high temperature hydrogen attack within a 40 year old shell and tube heat exchanger. Catastrophic structural failure on startup after a scheduled tube cleaning resulted in an explosion and fire with immediate and delayed fatalities.

It seems to me that the failure of a high temperature heat exchanger after 40 years of service handling hydrogen and naphtha has more to do management policy on equipment service life than anything else. This speaks to prudent administrative and engineering controls on plant safety. A shell and tube heat exchanger has no moving parts to fail. It just sits motionless doing it’s function. There are no failing parts to replace other than leaky tubes and valves. Perhaps no one considered that the inherent nature of the gas and thermal cycling was deleterious to the integrity of the metal shell? Perhaps there was no enthusiasm to define official hours of operating life. Plant managers are always under pressure to minimize operating costs. This is especially true of plants producing high volume low margin commodities.

But here is the rub. Everything has a failure rate. This is especially critical for equipment under high temperature and pressure. The first layer of administrative control is for management to make allowances for materials in extreme environments. Anacortes is not the only recent incident where component failure has occurred in equipment performing under demanding conditions. Before the engineers can make equipment specifications for this, management has to conform to the notion that some parts of a plant should have better definition on service life. They should demand it of their design people and support engineering when the time comes to replace a component.

If the CSB believes that a company has weak administrative controls that influence plant safety, then I think they should investigate.

The King in Yellow

Being a devotee of the HBO series True Detective I became intrigued with the purported allusions to the 1895 book of short stories The King in Yellow by Richard W. Chambers. I received my copy from Amazon yesterday and read the first three stories.

I have never ventured into the horror genre so this is refreshing. Chambers was reportedly influenced by Ambrose Bierce. His prose is considerably less dense than Bierce’s- closer to a 20th century cadence and vocabulary. H.P. Lovecraft took notice of Chambers as well. Lovecraft and Bierce are next on my reading list.

As with the story line of True Detective, The King in Yellow (or Yellow King) is not really centered on the fictional play of the same name. Rather, it is a kind of story telling device that motivates and launches characters along the arc of another story. It’s an interesting device.

Solvay and AREVA Make Deal to Develop Thorium Technology

I have been an advocate of thorium based nuclear power for a long time. There are certain advantages that thorium based nuclear technology has over uranium and plutonium systems that make it appealing, as long as the nuclear genie is out of the bottle anyway. Others have written about this and there is no point in my wasting bandwidth on it here.  Fort St. Vrain Generating Station, one of the very few HTGR Thorium plants ever operated in the US sat a half hour from here from 1979 to 1989. As prototypical operations go, the plant had a history of upsets and unforeseen complications and was decommissioned after a decade of sub-commercial output. Eventually the plant was converted to a natural gas turbine plant and runs to this day in that capacity.

So it was of interest to learn that the venerable European company Solvay has teamed up with AREVA to develop thorium technology. Uranium and rare earth processing, as well as other minerals produce side streams enriched in thorium.  According to the link, both players have been accumulating inventories of thorium.  Hmmm. What could they be up to…?

The Adenocarcinoma Chronicles.


Five months past treatment for throat cancer I will set aside The Squamous Chronicles and instead post The Adenocarcinoma Chronicles. Having won the advanced prostate cancer lottery as well, my current adventures involve treatment below the beltline.  Here are my impressions of the experience to date.

Physicians, or more specifically in this context, oncologists, are ethically constrained to apply agreed upon treatments for the indications presented by the patient. I have gotten no “off-label” kind of advice up to now. In my case, my PSA was 39 and the biopsy readings from the pathologist were assigned Gleason 9. Well, sonofabitch. That was a fine kettle of fish. Looks like my watchful waiting was long in the waiting and too light in the watchfulness.

The standard treatment regimen in my case is hormone ablation and radiation. For hormone ablation I have had Degarelix and Lupron. For radiation I have begun IMRT (Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy) with a dose of 76 Gy to the targeted tissue mass. I asked about scatter dose to the testes just because of the obvious proximity. The Rad Onc looked it up and said it was 1 Gy. I then pointed out that I’ve had a goodly bit of radiation in the last year and was there anyone who keeps a running total on the cumulative dose? As expected, the answer was “no” followed quickly by the standard rationale that the disease was far more dangerous than the radiation. I’d say the same thing I suppose.

Things that my docs are reluctant to offer are opinions on how this whole disease plays out. There seem to be several elements to this reticence. First, predicting the future is difficult, especially with a stochastic phenomenon like cancer radiotherapy. Second, there are good reasons for the doc to not focus on gloomy topics like life expectancy, especially if the survival stats are not the best. Most people at some point spontaneously think of cancer as a death sentence. At present I view it as a chronic condition that will play out stepwise in terms of a convergent treatment and remission series that eventually ends with refractory and widespread disease. Seems pretty obvious. It is the time-scale that I am uncertain of.

I am writing about this because my treatment regimen seems relatively ordinary to this point given the status of the condition. Perhaps there are some fellows who have yet to climb on this train who are uncertain of where it goes. This is my journey and I’ll pass along my notes.

Update 3/13/14

Now 14 treatments into radiation. With the help of medical textbooks ordered from Amazon, I have slowly been learning more about the disease and the treatment. During my weekly consult with the Rad-Onc I asked the question- “What was the T number from the pathologists notes?” He replied it was T3c N1.  The N1 means there is a node involved so it’s Stage 4 cancer. No one actually came out and said this to me so I had to ask. It is one thing to suspect it and another to hear it. Hard to say if this knowledge is in some way empowering.

Gaussling’s 15th Epistle to the Bohemians. Thoughts of a Secularist Liberal Scientist.

If you knew me personally, you’d know that as a reductionist my profile can be reduced to that of a liberal atheist scientist with marginally good manners. I broke the shackles of magical thinking in high school after reading a few books by Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan. Though I have not been the same since, I have come to sympathize a bit with Quakers and their predilection for peace.

My religious upbringing was quite ordinary for a young Iowegian lad in the 1960′s. Confirmation in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in 8th grade followed by a short stint as a reluctant acolyte. The church seemed firmly footed in bedrock as an institution and adept at indoctrinating the young. In catechism studies I tried to understand the authoritarian system that is outlined by Martin Luther and the strange collection of narratives that make up the King James Bible.

There were abstractions that didn’t make sense then and are still a mystery to me today. The concept of the Holy Trinity always seemed suspiciously anthropomorphic. Then there is the crucifixion as a kind of “ghostly sorting mechanism” for salvation. It stands out against the backdrop of natural phenomena like physics and biology- mechanistic systems which seem to suffice for everything else. Finally, there is God’s seemingly endless requirement for worship and admiration which has always struck me as a vanity unnecessary for a supreme being. The whole scheme reeks of iron-age anthropology.

I remember the day it happened. I was praying for something or other. Trying to have a little spiritual time with the Big Guy. It finally dawned on me that I was talking to myself and in doing so, wishing for some particular outcome to happen. All those years. Praying and wishing were indistinguishable. I’ll admit, I was never one to volunteer a lot of praise to God. Heaping praise on a deity seemed patronizing and wholly unnecessary. Surely if God could elicit wrath, then he’d certainly pick up on being flattered.

Well, in the end, so what? Another tedious atheist commits apostasy. Like most people in US culture, my moral basis was built on what has been described as Judeo-Christian morals or ethics. It’s hard to avoid. But just as the earth does not rest on a foundation, I am not limited to sensibilities derived only by the sons of Abraham in a far earlier age. My culture and my brain tell me that theft, murder, and the other spiritual crimes (sins) are bad for the common good. That respect for others has a pleasurable and sensible aspect that threats of eternal damnation do not improve on.

The reductionist in me can’t resist the following assertion. Deistic religion reduces to cosmology. In the end, a religion offers a theory of the universe. It is a kind of physics that defines relationships between the prime mover and his (?) bipedal subjects imbued with mystical sensitivities. It claims to define the outcome of the disposition of a soul, whatever that may be.  I don’t even believe in the existence of the mind, much less a soul.  As a form of physics, religion lacks means by which theories can be tested. Quantitation of a spiritual element is an idea that has yet to see practice. It seems to lack predictive capability to estimate an outcome that can be validated. It is definitely not a science. It is not about matter or energy. It is about how to conduct ones life against a backdrop of divine authority and within a box of behaviors.

But our brains seem to be constructed in a manner such that religious/spiritual notions are nearly irresistible. Billions of people have claimed to feel its draw and testify to its merits. The projection of anthropomorphic imagery in myth is common in diverse cultures.  The Abrahamic religions congealed from cultures that were apparently unaware of the concept of zero. Where heaven is death with a plus sign, hell is death with a negative sign. To an atheist death is just zero. It has no sign or magnitude. It is unconsciousness and devoid of the awareness of pain or pleasure. Zero sensory processing. It is neither exaltation nor agony. Just zero. Entropy prevails. Such an outlook is hardly appealing enough to gather followers. It is grim and without hope of graduation to eternal bliss.  The take home lesson is to live in the moment, not the future.

Who am I to argue with millennia of religious thought? I don’t know. All I can say is that even as a cancer patient, I remain refractory to the pull of religious and mystical thinking. So it was and so it is.

Post script.

Divinity students! Relax. I’m no threat to your faith. My conclusions on this life of ours offers no ceremony and precious little fellowship. I can say that I’ve had an eye-full of the clockwork of this universe. Adherence to evangelical doctrines could not have provided the amazing insights. And for that I have no regrets.

American Idiopath

I recently developed a condition where I have ear pain and partial facial paralysis. Ear aches I can deal with, but when my face quits working, I go to the doc. So, that’s what happened. The ENT said that it resembled Bells palsy and the cause was idiopathic.

I can just imagine an attending physician and a resident in medical school taking future idiopathic specialists on their rounds. The doc walks in and greets a patient with an ear ache and a face that doesn’t work. “Yessir” he says with resignation, “another case of idiopathic syndrome. We just don’t know what the hell happened.” The resident turns to the med students and says gravely, “Look at this patient closely. Try not to confuse the distant stare and slack jaw with idiopathic disease. Even though this patient is from Iowa, we are convinced that there is an idiopathic condition overprinted on his presentation.”

The attending physician stands there thoughtfully for a moment, raises a bristled eyebrow and glances at his watch. “Let’s go people. The idiopathology wing is full of patients with mysterious conditions.” With that they shuffle off down the hall.


A round of acyclovir and prednisone cleared up the apparent Bells palsy. I am symmetric again and can pucker up to whistle a tune.

On the 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol Spill

The fouling of public waters in West Virginia by 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) is regrettable and my heart goes out to all of the families whose lives have been and are disrupted by the spill. In my judgment the descriptions of the substance found in Wikipedia and ChemSpider seem very evenhanded given what is known presently about the toxicology of the substance. The SymBioSys LASSO numbers found in ChemSpider are reassuring in the sense that the structure of MCHM does not line up well with the receptors in the list. The low scores are suggestive of substrate mismatch with these receptors based on calculation. That is a good thing. So is the relatively high flash point of 80 °C.

There are several uses of this substance. At the large scale its use has been patented as a frothing agent for coal beneficiation (US 4915825). That patent is now expired. It is useful for separating coal particles from inorganic mineral particles. Other uses include the preparation of ester derivatives to produce plasticizers either as a stand alone ester or, as a listing in SciFinder shows, a hydrophobic co-monomer.

From what I have heard in the media, the secondary containment failed, allowing material to discharge into the nearby river. This is easy to figure out. A visual inspection by plant EH&S should have noticed failure of the secondary containment during periodic inspection and flagged it for repairs. The US Chemical Safety Board is investigating and will eventually publish a finding.

It seems to me that the people of WV must be willing to publically demonstrate en mass if anything is to change there. The lack of regulatory oversight on facilities like this is not surprising. It is exactly as intended by the power brokers of the state.


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