Expectations were high for the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board at its inception 2 years ago.
Modeled after the independent National Transportation Safety Board, the agency was created to discover the causes of chemical plant and refinery accidents so future ones could be prevented (OGJ, Jan. 5, 1998, p. 28).
CSHIB is investigating a number of accidents, including four of interest to the oil industry.
It is examining a Feb. 23, 1999, fire that killed four workers and severely burned another at Tosco Corp.'s Avon refinery near San Francisco. It is studying the Nov. 25, 1998, deaths of six workers in an explosion and fire at the Equilon Puget Sound Refining Co. plant at Anacortes, Wash. And it is investigating two accidents involving Sonat Exploration Co. Seven workers were killed in a rig accident near Bryceland, La., on Oct. 24, 1998, and four died at an oil separation facility near Pitkin, La., on Mar. 4, 1998.
The board is expected to report on the Tosco refinery and Sonat oil separation plant accidents early this year.
Unfortunately, CSHIB was brought to a near standstill much of last year by a power struggle on its governing board.
Three directors (a fourth seat is vacant) essentially claimed that Chairman Paul Hill Jr. was running CSHIB as an autocracy. The trio were Gerald Poje, Andrea Kidd Taylor, and Irv Rosenthal.
Although CSHIB has issued only three incident reports, last year Hill declared the agency was so overworked it would not accept new cases.
In October-without consulting the other directors-Hill asked Congress to double the agency's budget to $16 million in fiscal 2001. The three alienated board members voted to retract that budget request until they could review it, too.
Hill then took a leave of absence, delegating most of his authority to CEO Phyllis Thompson. The three directors questioned his power to do that.
CSHIB's general counsel issued an opinion that said, although Congress gave the chairman major control of day-to-day operations, the entire board must decide policy and other major questions.
And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the agency's biggest supporter on Capitol Hill, agreed. He warned CSHIB that all board members must be actively involved in key decisions.
The three disaffected directors held an unusual public meeting to air their grievances last December.
Two weeks later, Hill yielded to the pressure and resigned as chairman. He will continue on the board.
Hill explained, "I came to realize that, although the rewards of this position are great, the costs to my personal life are even greater. That price has now exceeded my personal drive to continue."
The next move is up to the Clinton Administration-which had opposed the agency's creation in the first place. It can name one of the three current directors to serve as chairman or-since there is a vacant seat-appoint a new person to the board to serve as chairman.
The latter would be the best option to get CSHIB back on track quickly and bury past acrimony.