A placid announcement from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that it's heading to West, Texas, to investigate the massive fertilizer plant explosion shouldn't be remarkable. But it is. Such deployments are rare. Critics of the agency — which is tasked with investigating such accidents — charge that it's mismanaged and prioritizes the wrong investigations. The agency blames someone else, if indirectly: BP.
For the past two years, the Chemical Safety Board's budget requests have argued that its lengthy investigation into the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill is sapping its ability to respond to other incidents. In its 2013 budget request, a document sent to Congress in February 2012 to make the case for its federal budget allocation this year, the CSB wrote that "the burden of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon investigation and a backlog of old cases has further hampered the CSB's ability to initiate new investigations." In its 2014 request, released in January, the agency makes a similar argument:
In recent years, serious resource constraints have created a backlog of open major accident investigations and prevented the CSB from investigating more than a small percentage of the most serious incidents each year.
CSB staff recorded an estimated 282 incidents in 2011 and 334 incidents in 2012. However, the burden of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon investigation and a backlog of old cases have further hampered the CSB's ability to initiate new investigations.
The Center for Public Integrity, which yesterday — with remarkable timing, just 15 hours before the Texas explosion — released the results of an investigation into the CSB, would agree that Deepwater was a resource drain. But according to Jim Morris, one of the report's authors, many would suggest it's a problem of the CSB's own making. "Some of their own board members," he noted when we spoke with him earlier today, "were skeptical that the CSB could add anything to what's come out [from other agencies]. And yet its cost almost $4 million for a board that doesn't have a lot of money or people."
In an ideal world, the agency could investigate every accident. That's largely its mandate; the Chemical Safety Board was written into the Clean Air Act in 1990 in order to (as the EPA describes it) "... investigate, determine and report to the public, the facts, conditions, circumstances, and cause or probable cause of any accidental release resulting in fatality, serious injury or substantial property damage." But most accidents go uninvestigated. Compiling data from its budget requests, the graph below shows the number of incidents compared with the number of deployments and ongoing investigations. In 2010, the CSB deployed investigators to nine percent of incidents. In 2011, that figure was 2.8 percent. Last year: .8 percent.
The requests also include examples of the sorts of accidents to which it was unable to respond.
The CPI report quotes CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz on the need for resources.
"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."
CPI's Morris clearly doesn't see resource limits as the only problem, arguing, as with Deepwater, that the agency's choice of investigations may be part of the problem. The CSB spent almost two years investigating an explosion at a fireworks factory in Hawaii, for example, prompting a rhetorical question form Morris: "Does the agency need to be investigating a fireworks accident when there are these refinery accidents stacking up?"
The CPI report focuses on an April 2010 explosion at a refinery in Washington state which killed five employees. In the intervening three years, no final analysis of the cause of the accident has been released. In the meantime, the agency completed that Hawaii investigation and began several more. This while the Deepwater investigation continued and financial and staff resources stayed flat, as the budget requests and the CPI report indicate.
In 2011, those staffing problems grew worse. Four investigators quit the agency, including two team leaders. Speaking with a former CSB board member, the CPI report indicates that management issues made the job challenging.
"They were jumping from one investigation to another, and when a new accident occurred they would pull people off an existing investigation to go investigate that one," said former CSB board member William Wark, whose five-year term ended in September 2011. Wark, who accompanied investigators dispatched to the Tesoro accident, said it's "embarrassing" that the investigation has not been finished.
"The basic, bottom line is the agency is grossly mismanaged," he said.
It's worth noting that CPI compiled an overview of the agency's work product since its inception — full reports, case studies, and safety bulletins — showing no apparent correlation between staff size or budget and work product.
Quantity doesn't necessarily equal quantity, of course; different accidents would naturally take more time to investigate. But even during the CSB's most productive period, it was also producing some of its best reports. In 2007, it released a report on a 2005 explosion that the Morris called "widely praised." Nor do recommendations need to wait for a full report. Following a 2009 leak of hydrofluoric acid from a Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi, the CSB moved to quickly recommend fixes for other such facilities. Its broader report on the accident has not yet been completed.
Only once before has the CSB investigated a fertilizer-related accident. In 2009, it released its final report on the collapse of a fertilizer tank in New Jersey. It called for increased regulation of tanks, finding that the welds on the collapsed tank failed.
Though it recognizes the danger. In its 2003 budget request, the agency made the case for its work:
Since the 1947 Texas City fertilizer explosions, which killed more than 500 people, the United States has experienced many thousands of significant chemical accidents. These accidents have killed workers, released harmful chemicals into the environment, damaged homes, and flattened factories. ... Congress directed EPA and OSHA to develop new accident prevention rules for industry. Future accidents would be investigated by an independent Chemical Safety Board, whose findings and recommendations would promote further improvements in the regulations and in safety practices.