US panel allegedly investigated only one of 35 lethal accidents last year

The US government agency charged with investigating chemical accidents is failing to investigate even the most serious leaks and blasts, according to congressional watchdog the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) was notified about 920 chemical accidents in the 2007 financial year - 35 of which involved one or more fatalities - but it only investigated one of these incidents, the GAO claims.

The CSB is investigating far fewer accidents than is required by law, and the board needs a plan to address this gap, the GAO concluded in its 22 August report on the agency. ’By not investigating all accidental releases that have a fatality, serious injury, [or] substantial property damage, CSB continues to fall short of its statutory mandate,’ the report says. The GAO blames CSB’s difficulties primarily on ’inadequate management accountability’.

However, the CSB disagrees strongly with the GAO’s criticisms of its management, claiming instead that it doesn’t have the funding to investigate more than a small percentage of the reported chemical accidents.

’We would like to be able to perform some level of investigation on all 30 or so of the serious accidents each year, but right now we lack the resources,’ CSB spokesperson Hillary Cohen told Chemistry World. ’It is unrealistic to suggest, as GAO does, that on an annual budget of $9 million, the CSB - or any organisation, regardless of its management - could investigate every serious chemical accident in the US.’

Cohen also rejects the GAO’s claim that CSB investigated only one accident in 2007. She says the board initiated investigations of six major accidents that year, and completed seven reports that same year, including on the series of explosions at BP’s Texas City refinery during the restarting of a hydrocarbon isomerisation unit in 2005. In that incident, 15 workers were killed and 180 others were injured.

The GAO also recommends that the CSB require facilities to report information on chemical accidents. CSB says such regulation is unnecessary - and trade association the American Chemistry Council (ACC) agrees. ACC officials expressed concern about GAO’s desire for a new reporting rule, arguing that the US government’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) already has a one, although in need of improvement. The group notes, for example, that the OSHA regulation doesn’t allow errors to be corrected.

Go west

The CSB is seeking greater resources to carry out its work, but already plans to establish its first regional presence outside of Washington, DC. On 21 August, the board announced it would recruit new chemical incident investigators to work in Denver, Colorado, using existing resources. The Denver recruits will serve as the core of a new investigative team that will deploy to accident sites primarily in the Western and Midwestern US.

’Establishing a presence in the western states potentially will allow the CSB to recruit more effectively, to deploy investigators more quickly to accident sites, and to maintain important contacts with stakeholders throughout the country,’ said CSB chairman John Bresland. ’Expanding into other locations will help us grow our capacity to investigate more of the serious chemical accidents that occur each year across the US’.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA

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