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OSHA finds 'serious' violations in Super Pond death

The federal government's workplace safety watchdog has found "serious" violations in the January death of a civilian diver in the underwater testing facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The findings issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration this week are the first public admonition over the death of George H. Lazzaro Jr., the 41-year-old Army contractor who died Jan. 30 while performing routine maintenance in the manmade tank known as the Super Pond.

Lazzaro, a former Marine who lived in Baltimore County, was the first of three divers to die in the Super Pond in less than a month. Navy Diver 1st Class James Reyher, 29, and Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris, 22, drowned Feb. 26 while training.

OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, launched its investigation after Lazzaro's death. The agency is not investigating the deaths of the Navy divers because its jurisdiction does not extend to active-duty military personnel.

OSHA said Thursday that the Aberdeen Test Center failed to leave a qualified person above the water to manage the dive, conducted the dive without a standby diver, and kept no reserve breathing air supply, among other violations of commercial diving safety standards.

"Tragedies, such as this, can be prevented by following OSHA's commercial diving operations standards, which are in place to protect divers from risk of serious hazards," Michael Stracka, acting director of the agency's Linthicum office, said in a statement.

"All employers, especially those engaged in high-hazard activities such as diving, must provide a safe working environment for their employees," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Army Test and Evaluation Command, which oversees the Aberdeen Test Center, said the command had not seen the notices. Spokeswoman Eloise Lundgren said commanders would review the notice before commenting.

The Army has not released the results of its own investigation into Lazzaro's death.

The OSHA notices, signed by Stracka, offered new details about the incident. The agency said at least two divers were involved in an "underwater rigging operation" 127 feet below the surface.

It said a diver at 127 feet did not maintain "constant visual contact" with a "buddy diver" who was at 118 feet. At one point, the agency said, the designated person in charge joined the dive without leaving a qualified person to oversee the operation from the surface.

Lazzaro's role in the operation is not spelled out. The notices do not reveal the identities of the divers or the person in charge.

OSHA issued notices of seven serious violations, meaning it found there was "substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known."

The agency alleged four "other-than-serious" violations — breaches that had "a direct relationship to job safety and health, but probably would not cause death or serious physical harm."

The Aberdeen Test Center has 15 business days to request a meeting with OSHA. If it does not, the notices will become orders, with dates by which the violations must be corrected.

OSHA does not have the authority to penalize a federal agency, but it may issue a notice indicating an agency has failed to correct a violation.

Meanwhile, two Navy leaders now face the possibility of criminal charges in the deaths of divers Reyher and Harris.

The Navy Expeditionary Combat Command held a preliminary hearing in June to weigh charges of involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty against Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Class Mark Smith, the officer in charge on the day of their dive. Dive Senior Chief James Burger, the dive master, is charged with the same offenses.

Reyher, Harris, Smith and Burger all were members of the elite Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two, based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va. Unit members were training in the Super Pond in preparation for a deployment that had been scheduled for April.

Smith and Burger are accused of ordering the divers to train "outside of normal working limits" and without "requisite operational necessity" or adequate safeguards.

The officer who presided over their hearing has made his recommendation to Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, the head of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

The recommendation has not been released. Morneau is to decide whether to proceed to court-martial, order administrative sanctions or dismiss the charges.

The commander of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two was relieved of his duties. The Navy cited a "loss of confidence in his ability to command."

Officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground say there had been no fatalities or serious injuries at the Super Pond until the deaths this year.

Col. Gordon A. Graham, commander of the Aberdeen Test Center, suspended operations at the facility after the deaths of Reyher and Harris.

The Super Pond — officially, the Underwater Explosion Test Facility — was built in the 1990s to give the Navy a place to conduct underwater shock tests that would not harm fish or other aquatic creatures.

The 1,000-foot-long, 150-foot-deep pond is carved out of the bank of the Bush River and can withstand the equivalent of 4,100 pounds of TNT. It has been used to shock-test ships, submarines, torpedoes, missiles and other systems.

The Super Pond has also been used for training exercises.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Allan Vought contributed to this article.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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