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Industrial Safety

US chemical safety board steps up accident probes

New report continues surge of investigations, despite internal upheaval

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
July 6, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 22


A chemical plant with black smoke billowing out.
Credit: US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
Fire burned at TPC Group's chemical plant in Port Neches, Texas, for more than a month in 2019.

A new report by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) continues the board’s push to clear up a troubling backlog of incident investigations. It demonstrates that, despite upheaval in the last few years, the CSB has made progress in its core mandate of determining the root causes of chemical-related, primarily industrial, accidents.

Over the last year, the board completed 10 incident investigation reports, a record for this small, independent federal agency. Historically, the annual completion rate was about three reports, sometimes fewer, resulting in a big backlog of incomplete investigations and growing criticism over delays from communities, companies, and members of Congress.

The most recent report, released June 29, is an investigation of a 2020 propylene release and explosion at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing facility in Houston. Two workers and a nearby resident were fatally injured, and hundreds of neighboring homes were damaged. It highlights two key safety issues at the firm: the lack of a comprehensive process safety management program to control the risks of its thermal spray coating operations and an ineffective emergency response plan.

The report’s release continues efforts announced last summer by CSB board members Steve Owens and Sylvia Johnson, appointed by President Joe Biden, to overhaul and reboot the board and to clear long-stalled investigations.

In June 2022, CSB’s chairperson, Katherine Lemos, resigned suddenly in a dispute with Owens and Johnson over limitations in authority that Lemos had placed on board members.

During most of Lemos’ two years on the board, she was the only member, giving her total authority. Appointed by President Donald Trump, Lemos had an uphill fight as staff left and investigations stalled. Trump tried three times to defund the board, but Congress intervened each time with funding support.

With Lemos’ departure, a half dozen top staff she brought with her also left. The board wound up with just 27 positions filled out of the 44 it could have, according to a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which oversees the CSB.

The report found a host of problems that needed to be addressed by CSB management, including an inability to fill positions, an annual staff attrition rate of 22% over the prior 3 years, and low staff morale. But despite the problems, the board has significantly cut its backlog to eight investigations. The CSB has a goal to complete all but one in the backlog by the end of 2023.

On the flip side, the CSB has initiated only one new incident investigation in the last year, even though several hundred incidents would have qualified for a full investigation by meeting CSB criteria of a fatality, serious injuries, or significant property damage.

Over the past 12 months, the CSB has pushed to hire new employees and has brought back former investigators. CSB tells C&EN that it plans to issue two more final reports shortly and that it has hired five new investigators, including a supervisory investigator.

In December, board membership was increased to three with the confirmation of Catherine Sandoval, but it remains short of the designated five members.

Meanwhile, the OIG is investigating Lemos. It recently found she had misused some $50,000 for travel from her home in San Diego to the CSB’s Washington, DC, offices and to visit an aircraft carrier in Virginia; she also misused some $20,000 for office renovations. She does not agree with the findings, according to the OIG’s report.


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