Trump Proposes Dismantling Board that Investigates Chemical Disasters

By JAMES CELENZA

President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal would eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) even though the CSB is to catastrophic chemical disasters what the National Transportation Safety Board is to airline crashes, train derailments and bridge collapses.

Take one example: CSB’s investigation of the Texas City BP refinery explosion in 2015 that killed 15 workers. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found numerous violations of the facility’s Process Safety Management standard and issued hundreds of violations with a $21 million penalty, the CSB identified serious problems about how BP failed to evaluate the “safety implications of major organizational, personnel, and policy changes,” and failed to “provide adequate resources to prevent major accidents.”

The CSB also determined that BP had failed to “create an effective reporting and learning culture; reporting bad news was not encouraged. Incidents were often ineffectively investigated and appropriate corrective actions not taken.”

The CSB was authorized by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, in the wake of catastrophic chemical plant accidents such as the Philips 66 explosion in the United States, which killed 23 workers in 1989, and the Bhopal chemical release that killed thousands in India in the mid-1980s.

The CSB conducts in-depth analyses of major chemical incidents and issue recommendations to government agencies (OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency), industry associations (American Petroleum Institute) and labor unions (United Steelworkers) with a budget of less than $12 million, five board members and a staff of less than 50 that include chemical-safety experts, chemical and mechanical engineers, and health and safety professionals.

While OSHA and EPA can only look into specific violations of their standards and regulations, the CSB can look at deeper causes that aren't covered by any regulations — things such as the effect of worker fatigue or organizational changes that may increase environmental and workplace hazards.

CSB’s real value, however, is conducting root-cause analyses of chemical disasters, and then proposing a range of organizational, engineering and structural recommendations to prevent additional disasters. Many of the CSB’s recommendations are currently forming the basis of OSHA’s revisions to its Process Safety Management standard, and revisions of EPA’s Risk Management Program rules, the two major federal rules that address catastrophic chemical accidents and releases.

Ironically, considering Trump’s complaints that regulations have frustrated industry, many in the chemical industry strongly support the CSB, as Bloomberg News reported earlier this year.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board be abolished,” Stephen Brown, a vice president with Tesoro Corp., an oil refiner that was the focus of a 2014 CSB report, told the media outlet. “The goal is a fully functional, professional investigative body that approaches things in a professional manner with integrity.”

Even the Chlorine Institute, which has been the subject of a number of CSB recommendations, opposes the board's elimination. In a letter to Congress, Chlorine Institute president Frank Reiner wrote that his institute “fully supports” the agency and stressed that “the CSB fills a vital role in the chemical industry and we strongly encourage the full funding of the CSB.”

Many states have adopted new safeguards for chemical safety as a result of CSB reports. North Carolina, Kentucky and New Jersey trained fire inspectors on prevention of dust explosions. Colorado took measures to protect emergency responders during rescues in confined spaces. Connecticut banned flammable gas for cleaning pipes. New Jersey issued policies to prevent runaway chemical reactions.

New York City strengthened its fire code to address chemical risks, thanks to CSB recommendations.

After a 2012 fire at a Chevron Corp. refinery in Richmond, Calif., the CSB discovered that the pipe used was subject to corrosion and rupture because of the materials it carried. Though there were no rules against using that kind of pipe, industry changed its practice because of the CSB recommendations.

“We know CSB recommendations have made our plants safer, not just for workers but for residents surrounding those plants,” said Mike Wright, health and safety director for United Steelworkers. “When a chemical accident is prevented, it doesn’t make news.”

James Celenza is the executive director of the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.