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Safety Under Siege

Future of Chemical Safety Board uncertain as Congress attacks its chairman

by Jeff Johnson
September 1, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 35

Two workers were fatally injured August 2008 when a waste tank containing the pesticide methomyl violently exploded, damaging a process unit at the Bayer CropScience chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia.
Credit: CSB
Two workers were killed in 2008 when a waste tank exploded at the Bayer CropScience chemical plant in Institute, W.Va. CSB looked into the accident, which nearly released toxic methyl isocyanate.

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a target of criticism in the past, is under fire again. This time, members of the House of Representatives are leveling allegations of gross mismanagement at the board. Six Republican members are going further: They want CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso’s head.

The board has been beset by crisis and criticism for much of its 16-year history. It is an unusual government agency—an independent investigator of the root cause of complex and deadly chemically related accidents. It ferrets out and reports on tragic mistakes at the world’s largest refineries and chemical companies.

To keep CSB objective and focused on the cause of accidents, Congress gave the board no regulatory authority. CSB began operation after two regulatory bodies—the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency—failed to satisfactorily complete investigations of chemical accidents.

Chemical safety board faced uphill battles from the start

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) was created by a small section in a 1990 law amending the Clean Air Act. That minor provision, however, was singled out and opposed by then-president George H. W. Bush in a statement accompanying his Nov. 15, 1990, signing of that legislation.

Bush objected to the board’s independence. He noted that the President could not set CSB’s policy direction or remove members and could only nominate board members for Senate approval.

Bush sought no funding for the board. Nor did President Bill Clinton until 1998, when Clinton gave in to heavy pressure from Congress, industry, communities, and unions. He provided just $4 million to get the board started.

CSB was only put in operation following concern by Congress and communities over the failure of two regulatory bodies selected by Clinton—the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency—to satisfactorily complete chemical accident investigations.

Only three members were appointed to the five-member board at the start. To this day, the board has rarely had a full complement of members.

Despite having no offices or staff and a tiny budget, the board got off to a fast start. Borrowing employees from other federal agencies, CSB by early 1999 was investigating 28 accidents, including six that resulted in a total of 35 deaths. The accidents and investigations quickly overwhelmed the board’s resources.

During its first two years of operation, CSB determined which accidents it expected to investigate. The board surveyed U.S. data and found over the previous 10 years some 1,300 chemically related accidents met its criteria for investigation.

The report marked the first attempt to develop a single national chemical accident portfolio. It revealed a hodgepodge of partial information collected by five federal agencies for their individual needs. The study documented the confusion over the definition of a chemical accident and, most important, showed a huge potential number of chemical accidents that qualified for CSB investigation.

That report, said the board’s then-chairman Paul Hill, was the “first step” in assessing the quality of the government’s records. It showed the need to develop a central repository for accident information, which to this day does not exist in government, in industry, or among emergency responders.

Hill used the study in congressional testimony in an attempt get CSB funding of $12 million a year, a level it has not received to this day.

The study was challenged by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the industry trade association that has rebadged itself as the American Chemistry Council. The association, joined by the Clinton Administration and many in Congress, opposed a funding increase, accusing the board of expanding its reach. The funding request should be “rebuffed in the strongest possible terms,” the industry group said at the time.

CSB’s budget vacillated between $4 million and $7.3 million between 1998 and 2003. It sits at about $11 million today.

CSB was created through a 1990 law that amended the Clean Air Act. But eight years passed before the board got funding, and, from the start, that money was inadequate to support CSB’s activities.

Recently, six Republicans on the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), have called on President Barack Obama to fire CSB chief Moure-Eraso. They accuse him of creating a toxic and hostile work environment, causing staff as well as one board member to flee the agency. In a letter to Obama, the six say the CSB chairman has undermined the agency’s ability “to investigate industrial chemical accidents efficiently and effectively” (C&EN, July 14, page 7).

The board, Issa and other committee members noted during a June hearing, has fallen behind in completing accident investigation reports and its staff increasingly complains about working conditions.

The delays are indisputable. Although language creating the board sets a policy goal of issuing accident reports within six months, some reports have languished for four years. Moure-Eraso has acknowledged the need to overhaul management practices and offered a reform plan.

A report prepared by Issa’s staff and released at the hearing cited a multitude of complaints from unnamed staffers. The hearing included testimony from two board members, one of whom had resigned, criticizing Moure-Eraso for ignoring their views and leaving them out of board decisions. However, CSB investigation supervisors and team leaders say in a memo that those two members have been trying for years to undermine Moure-Eraso and force him from the board. Their views were not included in Issa’s report.

The internal strife and delayed reports, many safety experts say, suggest that CSB may have been designed for failure from the start. Its low level of funding—$11 million has been the highest annual appropriation from Congress—has never allowed the board to meet its statutory mandates. Its appropriations have been one-tenth or less that of the National Transportation Safety Board, a similar independent investigatory board. CSB’s presidentially selected board members have often lacked professional experience in the chemical industry. And although Congress criticizes the board, lawmakers urge CSB to conduct ever more complicated and costly investigations. Yet they have not provided funds to cover those costs.

Still, despite the shortcomings, the quality of CSB’s reports, videos, and other material appears to have remained solid. CSB enjoys continued support from many people in communities where accidents have occurred.

The divisions and public criticism will continue to discourage the already demoralized staff and will likely limit efforts to recruit new employees and board members, says Daniel A. Crowl, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan Technological University. He is a process safety expert who has worked with CSB. In 2002, the White House asked Crowl to join the board.

“I thought about it and eventually said no,” he tells C&EN. “I knew of the struggles CSB was having even then. It did not appear to be a very desirable job or a good career move. I felt I could actually make a bigger impact on industrial process safety with my current job here at the university.

“If CSB had been funded properly and things were really going in a very positive direction, I might’ve had a different answer.”

The factionalism and charges of mismanagement are familiar. In 2000, only two years after the board’s start-up, board members’ disputes spilled into public view. The CSB chairman resigned, and stakeholders—unions, companies, and communities—were sharply split over the board’s role and its path forward. Criticisms then, like today, centered around stalled investigations. And like today, refinery accidents in Anacortes, Wash., and in the northern San Francisco Bay Area topped the list.

By 2002, the board had resolved its disputes and entered a period of stability with a strong leader, former chairman Carolyn Merritt. During her tenure, CSB produced its most powerful report, an examination of the BP Texas City, Texas, 2005 refinery accident, which killed 15 workers. But with Merritt’s retirement in 2007, the board began to slip again, operating without a full board or even a chair for a time.

In 2010, Moure-Eraso was confirmed as CSB chairman. He inherited a backlog of 22 long-delayed investigations, the largest number in the board’s history. Soon, pushed by requests from Congress, the board took on its most complicated and expensive investigations: the 2010 Macondo-BP oil rig blowout that killed 11 workers and contaminated much of the Gulf of Mexico; the 2013 West, Texas, ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people; and this year’s Charleston, W.Va., chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 130,000 people.

Despite the political turmoil, CSB support appears high in communities where CSB has completed investigations and among international safety experts.

“I have worked and lived in eight countries and dealt with accidents and their aftermath for 24 years,” says Sidney Dekker, “and I can tell you this—globally, safety experts support CSB. Despite constraints, these people have produced really good material.” Dekker is director of the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and an international safety adviser for several governments, including the U.S.

“We use their reports and films all the time. They have been able to create products that set a standard for the rest of the world to follow. They should be proud of this.”

“Completing a chemical plant or refinery investigation and issuing a report in six months is a fantasy,” he says. “ ‘Quick’ is a year and a half. Expecting a report in six months is a setup for failure.” Dekker applauds the board’s independence, saying regulators have a huge stake in the outcome of an investigation, but he said the board must be funded adequately.

Sharing Dekker’s view are Maya Nye and Tammy Miser. Nye is president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a community health and safety organization in Charleston. Nye took part in CSB’s review of a deadly explosion at the Bayer CropScience pesticide plant in Charleston in 2008. Miser is the head of United Support & Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, a support group for families of workers killed in industrial disasters. She watched her brother die following a combustible dust explosion and brought her demands for industrial dust regulations before Congress in a 2008 House hearing.

“We want the reports quickly,” Nye says, “but you have to remember, the incident has already happened. We want to know how it happened, and frankly no other entity gives us the level of detail about the incident that CSB has given us. They have been essential in educating and protecting the public.”

She notes that Bayer first blocked the community from learning accident details, claiming the company was restricted under federal antiterrorism regulations. CSB sided with the community and made material public.

“Family members absolutely love CSB’s investigations,” Miser says. “We are not going to get that detail anywhere else. Of course, they could go faster, but we get answers through CSB investigations.”

Credit: CSB
CSB probed a huge explosion and fire, fueled by combustible dust, which ripped through the Imperial Sugar refinery near Savannah, Ga., in February 2008 and killed 14 workers.
On February 7, 2008, a huge explosion and fire swept through the Imperial Sugar refinery in Savannah, Georgia, killing 14 workers and injuring 38 others. CSB investigated.
Credit: CSB
CSB probed a huge explosion and fire, fueled by combustible dust, which ripped through the Imperial Sugar refinery near Savannah, Ga., in February 2008 and killed 14 workers.

Although Miser is disappointed there is no regulation of industrial dust, she says, “CSB’s press releases, updates, and bulletins on dust incidents have kept the issue in the public’s eye.” She adds that a new safety industry has sprung up to conduct dust-related training and assessments at companies because of CSB’s reports and recommendations.

But the board is stuck. Its funding is unlikely to grow, considering congressional criticism and tightening federal budgets, and it has only two board positions filled. Those two—Moure-Eraso and Mark Griffon—have been frequently at odds and took opposite sides during Issa’s hearing. Two other CSB nominees await Senate confirmation, and one faces opposition.

The Obama White House has been silent on the CSB controversy, which angers William E. Allmond IV, vice president for government relations with the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, a chemical industry trade association. Although Moure-Eraso has offered reforms, Allmond says they are not enough.

Allmond supports several of Griffon’s recommendations. They include prioritizing CSB’s backlog of investigations and moving quickly to address them and provide a better means for presenting board members’ dissents to majority opinions.

Although Issa’s hearing took place in June, Allmond says, “we haven’t heard anything from the White House or safety board.” CSB is valuable, he says, “yet we have a situation that is quite dire and appears not to be getting addressed.” He predicts, “It is likely to take years for CSB to recover and get back to where it needs to be.”  


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