"It''s been an extraordinarily busy couple of weeks," said Gerald Poje, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).
Poje, speaking earlier this month, had just returned from New York City, the site of an April 26 explosion that injured dozens of people, some critically, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
According to its legislative charter, CSB is to investigate "any accidental [chemical] release resulting in a fatality, serious injury, or substantial property damage," but because of its small budget, the board ordinarily plans to undertake only three new investigations of chemical incidents per year. This spring, within the space of two weeks, CSB launched two formal investigations.
A May 1 chemical plant fire at Third Coast Packaging Co. in Friendswood, Texas, near Houston, prompted the other CSB investigation. Third Coast manufactures automotive and industrial lubricants.
The Texas fire generated thick clouds of black smoke and forced the evacuation of approximately 100 people within a one-mile radius of the plant.
The New York blast, which occurred at the Kaltech Industries Group, a sign manufacturing company, initially provoked fears of renewed terrorist attacks.
Investigators from the fire department believe that the explosion was caused when a spark from an electric pump being used by employees of Kaltech to remove chemicals from a leaking drum ignited chemicals stored in the basement of the building. Investigators from the New York City Fire Department found more than 1,000 gallons of acids and flammable chemicals that they said were improperly stored.
Poje said the CSB now believes that a reactive chemical explosion was involved. CSB is in the middle of a special hazard investigation of reactive chemicals, so the possible connection to reactive chemicals heightened the board''s interest in the Chelsea incident. An additional factor is that the Chelsea area is densely populated with residents and office workers, heightening the potential danger to the public.
"There is an enormous amount of mixed usage in the Chelsea buiding," said Poje, "and the surrounding neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying."
In January, CSB began an investigation of a fatal incident at Georgia Pacific Corp.''s Naheola Mill in Montgomery, Ala. The two most recent probes mean the CSB launched its normal annual quota of investigations before the year was half over.
"We''re stretched to the ''max,''" said Poje. "We would have to exercise some extraordinary contingency plans if we need to do another investigation this year."
CSB currently has only seven investigators and although it is trying hire more, progress has been slow: CSB has hired no new investigators in over a year.
One option that does not seem open to CSB is to go back to Congress for more money. After a sharply critical report by the Office of Inspector General (IG) was released in late March, the CSB shaved $1 million off its original $9 million fiscal year 2003 budget request.
That did not appear to satisfy the frustrated chairman of a House appropriations panel. At an April 18 hearing on CSB''s budget, Rep. James Walsh, R-NY, threatened "drastic steps" to get the agency back on track. Like other lawmakers who have read previous damning IG reports about CSB, Walsh openly threatened the agency with extinction.
But a more likely outcome for CSB may be further budget cuts. "The subcommittee tries to reward the agencies that do a good job," said one staff member. "For those that don''t do a good job, it tries to take money away."
by James Nash