Chemical Safety Board Opens Up

The federal agency aims to increase its productivity, resources for industry and advocacy.

By Vanessa Allen Sutherland, U.S. Chemical Safety Board

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February 11, 2016, marked my six-month anniversary as chairperson and CEO of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) — the independent federal agency responsible for investigating chemical accidents to prevent similar incidents in the future. Despite its small size — just 40 people with an $11-million annual budget — the CSB has been at the forefront of determining the technical causes of chemical accidents and highlighting opportunities for improvement (see sidebar).

My goal is to ensure the CSB is both productive and collegial, firmly establishing the Board as a preferred resource for chemical data or research, investigative findings and safety-related videos. Performing and releasing the results of incident investigations in a timely manner, issuing general safety recommendations, and publishing articles and op-eds are all part of our work to reach a broad audience. My recent initiative to have the CSB’s products translated into Spanish exemplifies our intention to get safety information to a wider demographic. During my first six months, the CSB has completed two investigations, held interim public meetings for two investigations, issued interim recommendations and findings, updated or closed numerous recommendations, initiated a number of outreach initiatives and held four business meetings.

Let’s look a bit more at what we’ve done and our plans for the future.

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Completed Investigations

On October 21, 2015, the CSB voted to approve the final investigation report into the massive 2009 explosion at the Caribbean Petroleum, or CAPECO, terminal facility near San Juan, Puerto Rico; the report includes recommendations for addressing regulatory gaps in safety oversight of petroleum storage facilities by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The CSB’s investigation found several operational and regulatory deficiencies contributed to the explosion. We have recommended that OSHA and EPA require sites with aboveground storage-tank facilities, like CAPECO, conduct risk assessments to determine the potential dangers of their operations to surrounding populations and sensitive environments.

The CSB’s investigation report into the April 13, 2013, explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas, was approved at a public meeting in Waco, Texas, on January 28, 2016.

The massive explosion stemmed from the detonation of ammonium nitrate and resulted in the deaths of fifteen people, most of whom were emergency responders. The event caused the destruction of a nursing home, an apartment complex, and the town’s high school and intermediate school. Total damage is estimated to exceed $230 million.

The CSB report examined best practices for the use and storage of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, emergency planning, and land use near facilities processing and storing hazardous chemicals. The report integrated data gathered from the testimony of subject matter experts during an interim public meeting held in West, Texas, in April 2014. Lessons learned from this investigation can be applied in the 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate and in their surrounding communities. The agency has worked with other federal agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Homeland Security, to share information about the incident and support the President’s Executive Order 13650: Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security. (The EPA now is proposing to amend the accidental release prevention requirements spurred by that executive order; see “EPA Eyes Risk Management Program.”)

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