The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), Washington, D.C., is an independent federal agency with an important mission — to investigate chemical accidents and make recommendations, based upon its findings, to the companies involved and regulators to prevent such accidents from happening again. Unfortunately, internal divisions, including conflicts between the board and chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso (see: “Obama Tackles Safety Board Vacancies"), board vacancies and staff turnover, are hobbling its effectiveness.
Most chemical companies make safety a top priority. However, some firms still treat safety as an afterthought or just “talk the talk.” Such attitudes and safety lapses can lead to serious accidents when process upsets and human errors occur.
Indeed, significant safety incidents continue to arise all too regularly — such as the April 2013 explosion at the fertilizer storage and distribution facility of West Fertilizer, West, Texas (see: “Defuse Dust Dangers”), and the August 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond, Calif., refinery (see: “CSB Report: Chevron Ignored Safety Procedures Prior to Refinery Fire.")
However, the CSB hasn’t acquitted itself well so far this decade. It only has 11 investigations currently underway; six of these involve incidents that occurred in 2009 and 2010. According to the CSB, Congress’ request to investigate the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico siphoned substantial resources from other efforts and significantly contributed to the current backlog. In addition, the CSB’s funding has remained stagnant. Nevertheless, the failure to issue reports in a timely manner seriously undermines their value.
The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has oversight over the CSB, issued a critical report, “U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board Needs to Complete More Timely Investigations,” in July 2013. It cites five reasons for the failure, including “a backlog of investigations without documented plans for resolution” and “an average investigative staff turnover rate of 15%.” The report also makes nine recommendations, including “revise and publish annual and individual action plans” and “review investigations open for over three years and develop a close-out plan.” The CSB agreed with six of the nine recommendations.
The CSB’s Board should consist of five people, but only had three at the start of this year: Moure-Eraso, Mark Griffon and Beth Rosenberg. Nominees to fill the vacancies — Richard Engler and Manuel Ehrlilch Jr. — haven’t yet been confirmed by the Senate. Engler’s name was put forward in December 2012 and Ehrlich’s in January 2014. In early June, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) put a hold on their confirmation until the CSB provides records requested by the EPA’s Inspector General that it so far has refused to submit.
Making matters worse, Rosenberg resigned suddenly in May. She and Griffon had complained that Moure-Eraso had disregarded or inappropriately over-ruled majority decisions of the Board and generally had marginalized the Board’s role. For instance, in comments included in a June 2014 Congressional staff report “Whistleblower Reprisal and Management Failures at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board,” Griffon notes: “The latest attempts by the majority of the Board to have a public business meeting to get a status report on open investigations was effectively blocked by the Chairman through a procedural maneuver.”
Employees responsible for investigating incidents also have suffered at the hands of the CSB management and this has led to high turnover, according to that report. It states: “Witnesses told the Committee that CSB personnel who disagree with Moure-Eraso and his management style risk losing their jobs.”
The report concludes: “The actions of a select few—Chairman Moure-Eraso, Managing Director Daniel Horowitz, and General Counsel Richard Loeb—have compromised the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s mission and left the agency in disarray. Their actions, ranging from belittlement of staff and micromanagement of CSB investigations, to prohibited personnel actions and improper staff directives, are simply unacceptable. These practices must change without delay.”
That report was written by staff of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, so I, for one, wouldn’t regard it as completely impartial. However, it clearly is more evidence that the CSB needs fixing.
The country and our industry deserve — and should demand — a CSB that can achieve its mission.
MARK ROSENZWEIG, Editor in Chief of Chemical Processing, can be e-mailed at email@example.com.