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Full Agenda For Safety Board

Record number of ongoing accident investigations plus BP rig explosion means busy time ahead for CSB

by Jeff Johnson
July 26, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 30

Credit: CSB
CSB hopes to apply expertise gained from earlier BP investigations, particularly one of an explosion at this Texas City, Texas, refinery, to aid in its probe of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit: CSB
CSB hopes to apply expertise gained from earlier BP investigations, particularly one of an explosion at this Texas City, Texas, refinery, to aid in its probe of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just four days after taking the helm of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), new chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso found himself in Portland, Conn., running a nighttime community meeting. There, he presented the final report on CSB’s investigation of an explosion that took place in February at the construction site of the Kleen Energy power plant where six workers died.

It was Moure-Eraso’s first CSB public meeting, as well as fellow new board member Mark A. Griffon’s. Neither of them even had time to unpack his Washington, D.C., office before leaving for Connecticut. With their arrival on the board, CSB will have its full complement of five members, which hasn’t happened in three years.

The two hit the ground running, and the pace is unlikely to slow for them, the other board members, or CSB’s 40-person staff as they face a record number of active investigations. The most recent addition to the board’s docket came in late June, when it accepted a congressional request to investigate the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. This study promises to be one of CSB’s largest: Moure-Eraso estimates that it will take two years to complete and will cost $2.5 million.

The new chairman takes over CSB from John S. Bresland, who voluntarily stepped down from the top slot but who remains on the board. Unlike Bresland—a former Honeywell process engineer and plant manager—Moure-Eraso does not come directly from a chemical plant or have an extensive industrial background.

For the past 22 years, Moure-Eraso, 63, has been a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, in the School of Health & Environment. He holds a doctorate in environmental health as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. A naturalized citizen, he came to the U.S. from Colombia in 1967.

For 15 years prior to his academic career, Moure-Eraso was an industrial hygienist with the union groups Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International (OCAW) and the United Auto Workers and was an adviser to both the Department of Labor and the National Toxicology Program. He began his career, however, as a chemical engineer with stints at Rohm and Haas and Dow Chemical, working on projects to scale up chemical manufacturing processes from lab bench to pilot plant to production plant.

CSB’s new chairman will have to get up to speed quickly because the BP/Deepwater Horizon investigation comes on top of 18 other incidents the board is now examining. These include high-visibility accidents at DuPont and Bayer CropScience plants in West Virginia.

Nine of the current investigations are refinery accidents, four of which killed a total of 21 workers. The BP oil rig investigation will be the second ongoing examination of a deadly accident at a BP site; the board is also investigating a January 2008 accident at the company’s Texas City, Texas, facility.

Indeed, BP and 12-year-old CSB, which selects and investigates the root causes of chemical accidents, appear to have an intertwined history. One of CSB’s first investigations was of an accident at a BP Amoco Polymers plant in Georgia in which three workers died in March 2001. Four years later, an accident at the BP refinery in Texas City changed everything for the board.

Credit: Jeff Johnson/C&EN
Credit: Jeff Johnson/C&EN

It was there that a distillation tower and attached blowdown drum were overfilled with flammable liquid hydrocarbons during start-up of the plant’s octane-boosting isomerization unit, according to CSB. The blowdown drum—intended to capture excess hydrocarbons—overflowed and ignited, exploding in a geyser of flame as it was vented directly to the atmosphere rather than through a flared, controlled safety system.

CSB’s investigation turned up eight similar releases at the Texas City plant between 1994 and 2004. Twice, the incidents resulted in fires. In 1992, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) fined the refinery for its unsafe blowdown drum, but the owner at the time, Amoco, challenged the fine and it was withdrawn.

The 2005 accident killed 15 workers and injured 180 in a single blast, making it one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The lengthy investigation thrust CSB into the public eye and resulted in a scathing, influential report that helped redefine the board.

CSB blamed BP for a culture of cost-cutting, management’s acceptance of high-risk production methods, and an unwillingness to address specific process safety problems that the company was aware of for decades. The board also cited worker fatigue and BP’s emphasis on production over safety as factors contributing to the accident. Many of these conditions mirror problems identified in congressional investigations of the recent BP oil rig disaster.

In its report CSB also blasted government agencies, including OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency, for failing to enforce regulations at the facility. In addition, the board urged BP to create an independent panel to thoroughly examine its operations, which the company did. CSB’s chairwoman at the time, Carolyn Merritt, took the problem to the nation through her 2006 appearance on the television program “60 Minutes.”

CSB pointed out that in 2004, the year before the accident, BP reported its lowest injury rate in history: one-third of the national average. The rate, however, turned out to be masking reality because it was based on personal accidents, not major accidents. The same year BP made the claim, three workers died at the Texas refinery.

Despite BP’s history, CSB did not immediately agree to investigate the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster. The board vacillated but shifted gears and agreed when Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart T. Stupak (D-Mich.) requested that the investigation be taken up. Waxman and Stupak, chairmen of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, respectively, sought CSB’s help because of its experience with BP.

The board “had to react,” Moure-Eraso says. “We will have to regroup and rearrange things” in order to carry out this investigation, he adds. “Our budget is fixed, but we are very actively looking for resources.”

Moure-Eraso notes the large number of refinery accidents but says the problem is larger than refineries: “If you look at the picture of the energy industry in the U.S., you see a picture of crisis.”

David Michaels, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, echoes Moure-Eraso in that concern. Michaels recently noted that 58 workers died in a three-month period earlier this year in energy-related industrial accidents at coal mines, refineries, power plants, and drilling operations.

New Trend?
Credit: CSB
The investigation of a Kleen Energy power plant accident in Connecticut was closed in five months, a record for CSB.
Credit: CSB
The investigation of a Kleen Energy power plant accident in Connecticut was closed in five months, a record for CSB.

Over the past few years, OSHA has increased its focus on and initiated more inspections at the U.S.’s 151 refineries. For BP, OSHA specifically proposed $87 million in penalties last year for failure to comply with worker safety provisions that the firm had negotiated with regulators after the Texas City accident. The fine was an OSHA record, but the dollar amount is small compared with BP’s profits—which last year were $14 billion. Last March, OSHA proposed another fine for BP: $3 million for safety violations at the BP-Husky refinery, located near Toledo, Ohio.

Refinery and chemical worker unions have increasingly complained about safety issues within the oil industry and, earlier this month, urged management to begin negotiations with unions to try to reach a national agreement on health and safety at refineries. United Steelworkers Vice President Gary Beevers implored oil companies to sit down with the unions and reach enforceable health and safety provisions to cover all plants.

The American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association did not return C&EN’s calls for comments.

Given his background, it’s not surprising that Moure-Eraso enjoys support from organized labor. Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for Change to Win, a coalition of five labor unions representing 5.5 million workers, cites Moure-Eraso’s training and experience in both chemical engineering and environmental safety and health as being particularly beneficial.

Frumin calls Moure-Eraso’s views a “welcome relief from the ideological positions” of former board member Gary L. Visscher. Visscher, a former vice president for employee relations at the American Iron & Steel Institute, a Washington, D.C., trade association, often opposed board decisions.

“Rafael has a heart for the worker and the intellect to see the forest and also see the trees,” adds Glenn Erwin, a health and safety official with the United Steelworkers who worked with Moure-Eraso when they were both at OCAW.

With respect to the biggest investigation now on CSB’s plate, Erwin says it is “critical” that CSB get involved. He is not sure of the need for the other investigations of the BP oil rig accident that are getting under way—there are at least nine of them. These studies include ones by congressional committees, the National Academy of Engineering, the Marine Board of Investigation, and BP. The most visible investigation is by a seven-member national commission created by President Barack Obama and led by former EPA administrator William K. Reilly and former Democratic senator from Florida Robert Graham.

That commission is just getting under way and should report the accident’s root cause to the President within six months. It will also determine ways of avoiding similar accidents in the future. Obama is seeking $15 million for the commission, although the House has cut the appropriation to $12 million. To put this in perspective, CSB’s entire yearly budget is $10.5 million for 2010.

“If CSB is funded to do the BP oil rig investigation, it will do an excellent job,” Erwin says. “They’ve got a good group of investigators, especially if they use the ones that did the BP explosion investigation in 2005.”

Waxman and Stupak similarly called for using the Texas City incident investigators, and Moure-Eraso says this will be the case. The new chairman has appointed CSB Investigations Supervisor Donald Holmstrom, who led the 2005 investigation, to head the board’s efforts. He will be joined by about six other CSB investigators who were also involved in scrutinizing the previous BP accident. Moure-Eraso estimates it will require at times up to 12 staff members, similar to the 2005 accident investigation. The team will be working full-time for two years, he predicts.

The board’s focus will be on what events led to the accident, as well as on worker training, system redundancies, and broader safety issues, or what Moure-Eraso calls the “work organization.” It will not study the explosion’s environmental impact, which he says is being examined by others. He also notes that there is a “slew” of information about the accident coming out now, and the board is trying to organize all of it.

CSB will also examine oil rig regulations in other countries, Moure-Eraso says. In particular, the board will look at those of the U.K. and Norway, which have been held up as models. The U.K. began a multiyear investigation and overhauled its regulations after an explosion and fire on the Occidental Petroleum Piper Alpha oil and gas rig in July 1988. The accident killed 167 workers, making it the world’s most deadly oil rig incident.

The board has an emergency fund of some $800,000 to begin the BP investigation, Moure-Eraso says, but it has requested some $2.5 million in additional funding from Congress in 2011. Calls by C&EN to several congressional committees, however, found none willing to make firm commitments to increase CSB’s funding at this time.

Although congressional funding appears uncertain, a piece of legislation—H.R. 5626—currently under debate in the House paves the way for CSB to do its work by giving it authority to conduct the BP investigation and make recommendations. It also requires the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard to support CSB and provide access to material and people.

But this access is not likely to be enough. The board has been stuck in a kind of time warp in terms of funding and staffing: Accidents continue to occur, and even though CSB has gained more experience and has been urged to take on more authority, its size and budget—40 staff and $10.5 million per year—have stayed flat for the past half-dozen years.


Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, congressional committees, and labor unions have criticized CSB for failing to investigate more accidents and for leaving out key ones. The board has said it would like to carry out more studies but can’t without more funding (C&EN, Feb. 15, page 40).

Moure-Eraso made the same point, telling C&EN he hopes to increase the number of investigations CSB undertakes. But with the board’s decision to carry out a BP oil rig investigation, its workload is likely to skyrocket.

To help free up resources, CSB has started a process to wrap up pending investigations. With the Kleen Energy public meeting, CSB closed that investigation in record time: less than five months after the accident occurred. On the same day, it also closed the books on the investigation of an explosion that occurred on June 9, 2009, at a ConAgra Foods plant in North Carolina that killed four workers. Both accidents occurred during the purging of natural gas lines.

Some in the communities where the incidents took place worry about the slow pace of investigations and the impact of the board’s growing workload.

In a July 14 letter to the board, W. Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, in West Virginia, urged CSB to finalize its investigation of the Bayer CropScience accident that occurred almost two years ago in his county. CSB held a large community meeting over a year ago to discuss its preliminary results, but no final report has been released (C&EN, May 11, 2009, page 25).

“With all due respect, the families and the people in the community deserve better,” Carper wrote. In response, Moure-Eraso said last week that he will visit Charleston, W.Va., and meet with Carper. The board is also scheduling a fall public meeting in West Virginia to issue a final report on the Bayer CropScience accident.

Moure-Eraso says he is well aware of the difficulty caused by delayed reports. He also frequently stresses the importance of CSB’s investigations to the communities, as well as to workers and companies.

In the case of the BP/Deepwater Horizon accident, he underscores the need to quickly explain what happened on the rig to the families of the 11 workers who died. “Nobody hardly ever mentions the 11 people,” he notes. “They are just gone. We have a responsibility to respond to these deaths.”


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