Chemical industry watchdog falls years behind on safety reports for deadly accidents

WASHINGTON - On April 2, 2010, an explosion at the Tesoro Corp. oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killed five workers instantly and severely burned two others, who succumbed to their wounds.

Eighteen days later, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing a massive oil spill.

In both cases, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board – an independent agency modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board -- launched investigations. Like the NTSB, the Chemical Safety Board is supposed to follow such probes with recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies.

Yet 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.

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.

 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."

"I think they're making excuses," said Shauna Gumbel, whose son, Matt, died 22 days after being burned in the blast. "Why aren't they assigning more people so they can get the investigation done in a timely manner and the families can move forward?" Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and managing director Daniel Horowitz say the board, which has a $10.55 million annual budget, is stretched thin.

"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. 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.

"We decided that it was important to deploy [to Richmond] because the issues that were raised were issues that affect the whole refinery industry," Moure-Eraso said.

Current and former board members and staffers, however, contend the agency's investigations are poorly managed -- an allegation the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general is exploring.

Former board member William Wark, whose five-year term ended in September 2011, said it's "embarrassing" that the Tesoro investigation has not been finished. "The basic, bottom line is the agency is grossly mismanaged," he said.

The board has 20 investigators -- four more than it had in 2008. Yet earlier investigations were often completed more quickly.

The deadliest accident the board has investigated was the March 2005 explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas. Fifteen workers were killed and 180 injured. The board's final report was issued just under two years after the accident.

A February 2008 blast at the Imperial Sugar plant near Savannah, Ga., killed 14 and injured 36. The final report was issued in 19 months.

Gerald Poje, a Bill Clinton appointee who served on the board from 1998 to 2004, said he finds it "painful" that more recent investigations have stagnated. "Unfortunately, over time, people begin to forget and feel less obligated to pay attention to recommendations," Poje said.

Falling productivity Created by Congress in amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, the Chemical Safety Board was starved of funding and didn't get up and running until 1998.

Authorized for five members, the board currently has three, with a fourth awaiting confirmation. Its staff numbers 39.

The 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 it released nine products -- three full reports, three case studies and three safety bulletins. In 2007 it put out eight, including a 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, one interim report – on Chevron -- and one case study.

"Would we like to do more? Would we like to do it faster? Sure," Horowitz said, adding that he expects the Tesoro investigation to be completed by the end of this year.

The United Steelworkers union, which represents workers in refineries, chemical plants and other hazardous settings, has been among the board's more vocal critics.

At a public meeting in January, Steelworkers health, safety

and environment director Mike Wright said investigative delays "severely compromise the board's mission," adding, "This is a management problem."

The EPA's inspector general is looking into this very subject. In May 2012, the IG notified Moure-Eraso that it planned an audit "to determine whether CSB's investigative process can be more efficient to enable more investigative work."

"We are kind of full-time employment device for the IG," Moure-Eraso said. "I don't think that they are competent to basically understand how we work or understand how we conduct investigations."

The board's choice of investigative targets has been a point of contention.

Why, the Steelworkers ask, did the board follow up on an ink plant explosion in East Rutherford, N.J., that injured seven workers last October but not a hydrofluoric acid release that killed a union member in December at the Valero Energy Corp. refinery in Memphis? Hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic gas, is used at about 50 U.S. refineries. The union thought the Valero accident afforded a "golden opportunity" for the board to reinforce the need for "inherently safer technologies," said Kim Nibarger, a health and safety specialist. "They said they were too busy."

Horowitz said the board was asked to go to New Jersey by one of the state's senators, Frank Lautenberg. No one in the Tennessee congressional delegation urged the board to look into Valero.

"We screen [accidents] very carefully," Horowitz said. "We look at the specific consequences – the number of deaths and injuries and things like that, the number of community evacuations. We look at qualitative factors, one of which is requests from Congress and from our authorizing committees to investigate these issues."

Debate continues over whether the board should have investigated the Deepwater Horizon accident, already addressed in at least a half-dozen other federal inquiries, including one by a presidential commission.

Former board members Wark and William Wright, both appointed by George W. Bush, said they argued against it. "It was offshore. It was something that we had absolutely no business being in," Wark said.

"I don't think there's anything they're going to say that's going to improve offshore drilling right now," said Wright, whose term expired the same day as Wark's in 2011.

Horowitz pointed out that the board, then chaired by John Bresland, was asked to investigate the disaster in early June 2010 by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich. Bresland agreed. Moure-Eraso assumed the chairmanship days later, having been handed a record-high caseload.  "We told Congress at that time that we needed additional resources to conduct that work," Horowitz said. "Well, those resources were never provided." Nonetheless, Horowitz said, the investigation -- which has cost nearly $4 million and should be completed this summer -- was worth doing.

"We're the agency that's going to look in detail and depth at industry standards," he said. "The presidential oil spill commission took the 30,000-foot view, wrote a good report, but looked in broad strokes."

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, non-partisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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