Senate panel told CSB needs more funding, authority

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, July 11 -- The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) needs more funding and authority if it is to be truly effective, witnesses told a US Senate subcommittee July 10. The federal agency has investigated 42 refining, chemical, and other plant accidents since its formation in 1990 but continues to meet resistance from local governments and other federal agencies in some cases, witnesses said.

"The board's work has led to more plant inspections, better protections for workers, and more attention to safety issues in corporate board rooms. But even though it prevents injuries and saves lives, the board needs more funding to investigate accidents," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee's Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security, and Water Quality subcommittee.

Lautenberg expressed concern that CSB encounters resistance from other government entities as it tries to do its work. He cited a case in which a local fire marshal in Danvers, Mass. blocked the board for nearly a week from investigating a chemical explosion at an ink manufacturing plant, during which time, "crucial evidence may have been lost," he said.

He noted that CSB has received the same annual appropriation for the last 3 fiscal years. CSB Chairwoman Carolyn W. Merritt said the agency, which has 40 staff members, has a $9 million budget and has requested $10.5 million for fiscal 2008. Budget limitations and a lack of qualified investigators have kept the agency from examining 10-15 accidents this year, she added.

Information limited
Merritt also indicated that CSB did not receive all the documents it sought from the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration while it investigated the March 2005 fire and explosion at BP America Inc.'s Texas City, Tex., refinery that killed 15 and injured about 180 people. "It directly impacted our evaluation," she said.

Deborah Dietrich, who directs the emergency management office within EPA's solid waste and emergency response office, countered that EPA "provided a great amount of information. We did not see how questions regarding the number of inspections were relevant."

Merritt testified, "We made recommendations to OSHA but did not make one to EPA because we did not have the information." In her written statement, she noted that the National Transportation Safety Board, in a 2002 report, said that both EPA and OSHA have few safety inspectors compared with the number of high-hazard chemical facilities—about 14,000—which federal regulations cover.

Supplanting EPA
Timothy R. Gablehouse, president of the National Association of SARA Title 3 Program Officials and chairman of the local emergency planning committee in Jefferson County, Colo., suggested that CSB is supplanting EPA as a major federal safety agency at oil refineries and chemical plants "even though EPA has regulatory ownership of both primary statutory programs that create the structure of these efforts."

CSB recommendations in the last few years have focused on local preparedness, the use of local emergency planning committees, and enhancing relationships within communities to prevent and prepare for accidents, Gablehouse said in his written statement. "Its adoption of video reconstruction to communicate the results of investigations also has been extremely beneficial to those at the local level," Gablehouse said

Scott Berger, who directs the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' chemical process safety center in New York, said CSB's investigations enable companies, regulators, and workers to take necessary actions to avoid future accidents. He urged that CSB be adequately funded and staffed "to carry out in-depth incident investigations, capture the learning, and communicate that information to the industry, technical associations, regulators, and the public."

Merritt also urged the committee to compare CSB's statutory authority with that of NTSB, on which it was modeled. "The authority of CSB to preserve and determine the testing of evidence is much less explicit than the NTSB's authority," she said. "Last year, when the CSB proposed a procedural rule on evidence preservation at accident sites, some industry voices objected that Congress had never intended CSB to exercise such preservation authority." She said delayed investigations often result in important physical evidence being lost or destroyed. "Clarification of these issues by Congress would improve the quality and speed of CSB investigations," Merritt said in her written statement.

Other suggestions
Congress must make clear that no local, state or federal agency may block CSB access to the site of a chemical release, particularly during the early stages when physical evidence is most pristine and in the greatest peril, Merritt said. She also said it was important that CSB, EPA, and OSHA field teams have reasonable access to the other agencies' records and employees to conduct investigations.

"Congress could also consider providing a limited degree of statutory protection for CSB's own investigative records to prevent indiscriminate use in litigation and criminal prosecutions. The possible future use of information gathered by CSB in the courtroom can have a strong chilling impact on our ability to conduct our safety investigations and can detract from our independence," said Merritt, whose 5-year term as the CSB's chairwoman ends in August.

Berger said that AIChE and its chemical process safety center would like to see experienced chemical engineers named to replace the chairwoman and a board member whose terms are expiring.

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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