No New Chemical Safety Investigations Opened in Seven Months
19 Major Accidents Ignored as Chemical Safety Board Prolongs Internal Probes
Washington, DC — Despite nearly a score of major industrial chemical accidents since March, the federal agency charged with looking into their causes and preventing recurrences has not opened an investigation into a single one, according Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has been preoccupied with a multi-month investigation of its own executive staff – a probe it just extended yet again, into mid-November, at least.
Since the former Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso resigned in March 2015, there have been at least 19 major accidents resulting in 16 fatalities and 32 serious injuries. However, the CSB has not deployed investigators to any industrial accidents or commissioned any new investigations during what appears to be the longest period of CSB inactivity since 2000. The investigative paralysis is occurring despite –
- A triple fatality at a Louisiana facility owned by the same parent company as a plant where the CSB has an unfinished investigation started in 2013. Normally a second fatal incident involving the same company in the same state would trigger additional scrutiny and a new deployment of investigators; and
- A gas boiler explosion hospitalizing seven workers in Florida. CSB previously investigated a major explosion at a ConAgra plant – also caused by purging gas into a building (leaving 4 dead and 67 hospitalized) – and found numerous similar gas purging incidents around the country. Thus, CSB has foregone a chance to harness this extensive earlier work in seizing an opportunity to press for the lifesaving regulatory reforms it has recommended.
Prior to March, by contrast, the CSB had been averaging 5.5 new investigations per year, with as many as 8 new deployments launched in FY 2011. Even that pace did not satisfy the U.S. Environmental Protection Inspector General which last week called for more CSB probes in order to close what it called the “investigative ‘gap’ between the number of accidents that it chooses to investigate and the number of accidents that fall under its statutory responsibility” – a gap the IG estimated at 96%. But this new IG report failed to note the recent total hiatus of industrial accident investigations.
“The only new investigations undertaken by the Chemical Safety Board are of its own staff,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Plants are exploding, workers dying and communities endangered but this agency has no current plans to do much of anything about it.”
Via a memo dated October 28th, CSB Chair Vanessa Sutherland extended the paid administrative leave for CSB’s top two executive staff through November 16 – it was to have expired today. They have been sidelined since mid-June pending the outcome of a search for “possible misconduct.” That search is being conducted by two outside firms, retained at an initial cost of $100,000 with additional expenses mounting by the month. By way of comparison, approximately one-third of completed CSB investigations, many of involving fatalities, cost less to finish than what it has already poured into this internal probe.
“The Chemical Safety Board is sinking into irrelevance as America’s aging industrial infrastructure becomes more at-risk by the day,” added Ruch, noting that at a CSB public meeting last week recent Board appointees engaged in a round of self-congratulations, claiming the troubled agency has “turned the corner.” “On its mission to prevent major chemical accidents, this Board is currently missing in action.”