Bill Would Boost CSB Budget, Authority

July 12, 2007
A Senate Democrat said that he plans to draft a bill that would strengthen and clarify the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) authority to access the sites of chemical incidents.

Speaking during a July 10 hearing that called for tougher enforcement of refinery and chemical safety rules, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of the Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality Subcommittee, said he will develop a bill that would increase the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) budget, ratchet up its productivity and strengthen its authorizing statute.

Lautenberg's legislative proposal comes after a series of fatal incidents at several plants and refineries across the United States – including a 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 workers and injured more than 180 others – and could accelerate greater federal oversight of refineries and chemical plants.

CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt, who will be stepping down Aug. 1, said that an update to the current statute – which is 17 years old – would give the agency more authority over government agencies responsible for making sure health and safety regulations are implemented. She said that the new statute should be comparable to “the stronger investigative authorities of the National Transportation Safety Board.”

Merritt: Neither OSHA Nor EPA Enforced Standards

In March, CSB issued a report detailing the results of its investigation of the BP Texas City disaster. In the report, CSB concluded that BP PLC management repeatedly ignored safety warnings at Texas City and that OSHA should strengthen its refinery enforcement and inspection programs. Merritt asserted that the BP tragedy could have been averted if BP had implemented the provisions of OSHA's process safety management (PSM) standard and EPA's risk management program (RMP).

In addition, Merritt said, the disaster would have been prevented if both agencies had exercised their regulatory authority at BP Texas City as well as at other oil and chemical refineries.

“We determined that OSHA did few or no planned PSM safety inspections of chemical plants and oil refineries,” she said. “We also found that EPA did no RMP chemical accident prevention audits of the Texas City refinery prior to the accident.”

Merritt also said that “lack of implementation and enforcement of the elements of process safety and RMP” were common to most CSB investigations.

“The facts are [the BP accident] was predictable as well as preventable,” Merritt explained. “There were multiple events that occurred prior to this accident that could have resulted in this catastrophe and the fact that those were not identified and the equipment was not replaced was very tragic indeed.”

In June, OSHA announced that it launched a national emphasis program in an effort to determine if refineries are complying with its PSM standard. The agency has promised that it will inspect 81 refineries over the next 2 years. (For more, read “Refineries Facing Tighter OSHA Scrutiny.”)

Lessons Not Learned?

Deborah Dietrich, director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management, said that the agency has been cooperating with CSB to give it everything it asks for. Merritt said that EPA gave CSB some information but that EPA denied CSB access to safety processes and enforcement programs at the Texas City refinery prior to the explosion – which according to Merritt, “impacted our ability to evaluate the program under RMP and how it was being implemented.”

“We did not see where questions of the number of inspections and how we targeted inspections were relevant to the accident investigation. We did offer to talk further with CSB and we would be happy to get them what they need,” Dietrich said in response.

Others who testified at the hearing, such as Kim Nibarger of the United Steelworkers (USW) union, said that although the title of the hearing was “Lessons Learned from Important Chemical Safety Board Investigations,” previous incidents at other refineries – such as a 1995 explosion and fire at a Pennzoil refinery and a 1997 explosion at a Tosco refinery – were similar in scope to the BP Texas City explosion.

Nibarger also said that some of the root causes and contributing factors found in the EPA report – such as inadequate supervisory management and flawed process hazard analysis – were similar.

“Do any of these findings or recommendations sound familiar as 'lessons not learned?'” Nibarger asked.

Widow: BP Plant Disaster Was “Criminal”

The most compelling testimony was delivered by Linda Hunnings, who lost her husband in the BP Texas City explosion.

Hunnings said that her husband was wary of having to work to work at the BP Texas City plant.

“When we would pass the plant on our way to Galveston, he would always say, 'That place is an accident waiting to happen,'” Hunnings reflected.

Hunnings called for tougher enforcement of chemical and refinery safety standards and said that the change needs to happen so that other workers, specifically contractors, won't meet the same fate as her husband.

Reps. Al Green and Gene Green, both Texas Democrats, have introduced bills that would provide protections for contract employees. H.R. 2435 would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide for criminal liability for willful safety standard violations resulting in the death of a contract employee. H.R. 141 would require employers to report to OSHA contract workers’ injuries/deaths the same as their own employees. (For more, read “BP Refinery Tragedy Prompts Safety Bills.”)

“What happened at the BP plant in Texas City was criminal,” Hunnings said. “Contractors are not included in a plants safety record and prosecution under some federal laws cannot happen because they were contractors. My husband was a human being, not just a contractor.”

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