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August 28, 2008
Also appeared in print Sep. 1, 2008, p. 12

GOVERNMENT REVIEW

Report Hits Safety Board

Auditors want agency to investigate far more industrial accidents

Jeff Johnson

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) should quintuple its chemical accident investigations, Government Accountability Office auditors say in a new report. GAO notes that the board—an independent agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents—last year identified some 31 fatal accidents warranting a full investigation but examined only six of them.

CSB
The 2007 Valero McKee refinery explosion in Sunray, Texas, is the most recent of 47 investigations completed by CSB since 1998.

CSB Chairman John S. Bresland in a letter to GAO notes the board agrees with "various points in the report, such as the need to expand the investigation program." But, he says, CSB has concerns with many of GAO's other "conclusions and characterizations."

To identify the 31 accidents, CSB considered some 900 incidents, which it discovered from federal data and media reports. The accounting office wants CSB to change its reporting system and develop a regulation requiring companies to formally report chemical accidents directly to the board. Another GAO recommendation would give the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general authority to permanently oversee CSB management.

These recommendations were primarily based on GAO's reading of an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1990, which created the board.

CSB does not agree. It does not believe the law requires it to investigate all serious accidents, Bresland notes. But in his letter he acknowledges that CSB's mission—helping avoid chemical accidents—would be strengthened by more investigations. Hence, CSB will seek a bump up in congressional funding to allow it to investigate more accidents. The CSB budget has been flat throughout its decade-long existence.

The board also says that within three months it will solicit public comments on the need for an industry-wide, formal accident-reporting regulation.

GAO's oversight of CSB stretches back to 2000, when the board faced difficult management problems. Bresland says in his letter that these difficulties have been overcome.

The board was particularly concerned that several GAO recommendations called for oversight by EPA. CSB notes that it has criticized the regulatory agency in its accident reports, and consequently, EPA oversight may limit CSB's independence. Also, CSB's creation came in large part from inadequacies in EPA accident investigations because of its conflicting role as enforcement agency and accident investigator (C&EN, Aug. 14, 2000, page 27).

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ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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