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Chemical Safety Board Seeks More Authority

Federal agency says its lack of power hampers its investigations

by Jeff Johnson
July 16, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 29

BP explosion in Texas City, Texas, was worst industrial accident in CSB's history.
Credit: William Philpott/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: William Philpott/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said last week that he is drafting legislation to expand the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) authority to investigate chemically related accidents.

Lautenberg made the commitment at a July 10 Senate hearing on CSB's investigation of BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery accident in 2005, which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others. The refinery has had a history of accidents and operating problems that have led to the deaths of 42 workers in the past 32 years (C&EN, Nov. 13, 2006, page 31).

Testifying at the hearing, CSB Chairman Carolyn W. Merritt noted the board had been hampered in its investigations by local and federal agencies, and she urged that the board's authority be made comparable with that of the National Transportation Safety Board. Particularly, she sought greater power to preserve evidence, ensure quick access to accident sites, and obtain accident-related material and records from other agencies.

Merritt also said, "Thorough implementation of existing Occupational Safety & Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency process safety rules would have prevented tragic accidents, including the one in Texas City. Like other refineries, the Texas City facility was covered under both the OSHA Process Safety Management standards and the EPA Risk Management Program (RMP) rule."

But OSHA had conducted "few or no planned, comprehensive inspections at chemical plants and refineries," she said, and EPA had never done an RMP audit of the BP refinery.

Neither OSHA nor EPA ever gave the board enforcement records and other information it sought during the BP investigation, Merritt said, and consequently, CSB was forced to rely on press accounts, company data, and publicly available information for its investigation.

The BP investigation was one of 42 CSB completed since it was first funded in 1998, Merritt said, adding that the board had tripled its productivity despite a flat budget over the past few years. The board investigates around eight accidents a year, she said, but another 15 to 20 accidents each year should be investigated but are not, because of insufficient resources.



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