Oversight Fight | November 12, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 46 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 46 | p. 25
Issue Date: November 12, 2012

Oversight Fight

Chemical safety board objects to time lost complying with EPA Inspector General audits
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Safety
Keywords: accidents, CSB, EPA Office of Inspector General, oversight, audits
Fourteen workers died from a combustible dust explosion in 2008 at this Imperial Sugar facility in Savannah, Ga., one of 71 deadly accidents CSB has investigated.
Credit: CSB
Fourteen workers died from a combustible dust explosion in 2008 at this Imperial Sugar facility in Savannah, Ga.
Fourteen workers died from a combustible dust explosion in 2008 at this Imperial Sugar facility in Savannah, Ga., one of 71 deadly accidents CSB has investigated.
Credit: CSB

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General announced in mid-October another examination of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). The OIG audit marks the latest in a string of examinations by the office—a string so long that the board claims OIG is draining resources that would be better used for CSB’s purpose: investigating the root cause of chemical plant accidents.

Each year, three financial and security audits are required, according to OIG officials, and the office can and does call for additional programmatic audits as it sees fit. CSB staff members complain that the reviews have become routine and involve a disproportionate number of auditors. For instance, a recent OIG examination had seven auditors working for 21 months reviewing a three-person CSB program, says CSB Managing Director Daniel M. Horowitz.

“I am certainly not ‘antioversight,’ but you can have too much of a good thing,” Horowitz says. “This is becoming a huge burden and is taking CSB staff away from what they should be doing.”

The OIG audit announced in October is to determine whether CSB “has an effective system for managing its investigative process,” according to the office’s letter to the board. It is one of many audits over the years that has examined CSB’s process for investigating industry accidents.

CSB is a small independent federal agency, created by the 1990 Clean Air Act to investigate the root cause of chemical accidents, focusing primarily on refineries and the chemical industry. It has no regulatory authority; it was formed to be an unbiased, technical investigator, performing for chemically related industries the same function that the National Transportation Safety Board does for the aviation industry. NTSB, however, is 10 times larger than CSB. CSB has 39 professionals and an $11 million annual budget that has been basically flat for a decade.

Initial funding for CSB didn’t come until 1997, seven years after it was created. The board got off to a rocky start by taking on too many investigations and failing to complete them. The board also was plagued with internal management problems, and in early 2000, the board chairman resigned and CSB board members struggled to regroup. Management problems decreased but remained.

As a result, after several federal audits and congressional investigations, Congress passed legislation in 2004 giving EPA’s OIG formal authority to keep tabs on CSB. But by the time this law kicked in, CSB had resolved most of its difficulties and had begun to make a name for itself, particularly because of a large investigation of a BP Texas City refinery disaster in 2005.

From its start, CSB had suffered from a gap between its resources and responsibilities. By its own analysis, the board finds some 200 to 300 accidents annually that meet its threshold for investigation. Historically, board members have said CSB has resources to adequately investigate only about a half-dozen accidents per year because of the complexity of the accidents.

Since 1998, CSB has issued 71 reports, but it currently has 14 investigations outstanding. Two stretch back to accidents that occurred more than four years ago.

Into all this steps OIG, with its 325 employees and annual budget of $56 million. Its audits don’t come cheap. For one released on Feb. 11, 2011, OIG reports it spent more than $1 million.

In its most recent review, in August, OIG examined 588 CSB report recommendations and said 218 recommendations remained open and were missing key documents. Fifty-four had been open for more than five years, according to the OIG study, which urged CSB to overhaul its management program.

CSB strongly disagreed. It reviewed the same material and said only 6% of the recommendations were missing material that affected the “agency’s efficiency or effectiveness.” CSB managers worry that OIG’s oversight will drive their staff to focus on paperwork rather than quality investigations.

An OIG spokesperson defends the activities of the office. “We do what we think is appropriate. For instance, we receive hotline complaints about CSB and we follow them up the same as we do with EPA.” The spokesperson stresses that these activities were “audits” and CSB is not obligated to incorporate recommendations from the reports.

The spokesperson bristles at the suggestion OIG was seeking to limit the thoroughness of CSB’s investigations. “We don’t have this authority,” the spokesperson says, noting OIG’s audits looked at paperwork and not the actual quality of the investigations.

Still, Horowitz and several other CSB senior managers warn that the board may find itself dividing its $11 million budget among 200 or 300 accidents and shifting to incident surveillance rather than detailed investigations.

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