As CSB heads to Texas blast site, questions raised about ‘sluggish’ investigations, ‘short attention span’

April 18, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013. (APMichael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

It was early this morning when the email message came over from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

A large investigation team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is deploying to the scene of a massive fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant located in West, Texas, north of Waco.

Local emergency officials have told the CSB of a large number of injuries and destroyed buildings in the town.

The investigative team will be led CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom and is scheduled to arrive in Texas Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, West Virginians have come to know the CSB well. Agency officials produced detailed investigative reports on the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010.

But as we reported a few months ago, the CSB dropped its investigation of the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the AL Solutions plant up in New Cumberland, W.Va.:

As 2012 draws to a close, CSB officials are in the midst of their own probe of the April 2010 explosion and fire on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Among other ongoing cases, the CSB has launched a full investigation of the April fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., an incident that sent hundreds of area residents to hospitals. And like other government agencies, the CSB is facing the potential of serious budget and staffing cuts in coming years.

“It was in our minds a very serious and very tragic incident,” the board’s Horowitz said. “That’s why we sent a team out there. What has happened in our case as time unfolded, is just a plethora of competing priorities … all of which have huge pressures associated with them, and unfortunately for us, not a lot of resources to divvy up.”

And now, we have this important report from the Center for Public Integrity:

… Three years after Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon, both inquiries remain open – exemplars of a chemical board under attack for what critics call its sluggish investigative pace and short attention span. A former board member calls the agency “grossly mismanaged.”

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations – one more than five years old – are incomplete.

As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.

“It is unacceptable that after three long years, the CSB has failed to complete its investigation of the tragic Tesoro refinery accident,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a written statement to the Center. “The families of the seven victims and the Anacortes community deserve better, and the CSB must be held accountable for this ridiculous delay.”

Firefighter conduct search and rescue of an apartment destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013.  A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The story goes on to explain:

Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and managing director Daniel Horowitz say the board, which has a $10.55 million annual budget, is stretched thin and must decide which of the 200 or so “high-consequence” accidents that take place in the United States each year merit its attention.

“We’ve made innumerable proposals over the years … pointing out the significant discrepancy between the number of serious accidents and the ones that we can handle from a practical standpoint,” Horowitz said in an interview with the Center. “We’ve asked for a Houston office. We’ve asked for additional investigators for many years.”

Congress, he said, has been unwilling to come up with more money.

Moure-Eraso, chairman since June 2010, said the Tesoro investigation was sidetracked by an explosion at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., last August that created a towering black cloud and prompted about 15,000 people in surrounding neighborhoods to seek medical evaluation. No one was killed but 19 workers were exposed to noxious hydrocarbon vapors.

“We have to make decisions,” Moure-Eraso said. “Here we were, running along, working on Tesoro, and then this accident happened at Chevron. We decided that it was important to deploy [to Richmond] because the issues that were raised were issues that affect the whole refinery industry.”


Authorized for five members, the board currently has three, with a fourth awaiting confirmation. Its staff numbers 39. The NTSB, by comparison, had more than 400 people and a budget of $102 million in fiscal year 2012.

The chemical board appeared to hit its stride under Carolyn Merritt, a George W. Bush appointee who served as chair from 2002 to 2007 and died of cancer in 2008.

In 2006 the board released nine products – three full reports, three case studies and three safety bulletins. In 2007 it put out eight, including a widely praised, 341-page report on the BP-Texas City explosion.

Production has trended down ever since. Last year, the board released two case studies. So far this year, it has issued one full report and one case study. On Monday, it released an interim report on the August 2012 Chevron accident.

“It depends, ultimately, what Congress expects the agency to do,” the board’s Horowitz said. “If they expect us to look at all 200 of these high-consequence accidents, then that’s a larger problem. With the resources that we have – which, like every other agency, are finite – we do tremendous good.

“Would we like to do more? Would we like to do it faster? Sure.”

On Twitter this morning, the CSB was pushing back with criticisms of the story, such as:

— … Three reports issued 2013 in 3.5 mos is a higher rate than any previous yr…

— … Report stats omitted #chevron report, report rate this year to date higher than peak year 2006

— … Ex-members portrayed opposing Deepwater case actually supported when launched, wanted it broad, notes/votes show

You can read the whole Center for Public Integrity report here.

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