Save the CSB

A small fed­eral agency has pro­tected count­less lives at petro­chem­i­cal plants.

Houston Chronicle - - FROM THE COVER -

All most of us saw of the burn­ing Arkema plant in Crosby dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey were pic­tures of fire and smoke bil­low­ing into the air.

Only later did we learn the de­tails of what hap­pened: how trail­ers full of volatile or­ganic per­ox­ides de­com­posed and started catch­ing fire, how fork­lifts used to move con­tain­ers of those chem­i­cals be­came use­less in the ris­ing wa­ter, how work­ers rid­ing out the hur­ri­cane tried to fore­stall a catas­tro­phe by hand-car­ry­ing can­is­ters of per­ox­ides through flood­wa­ters on a stormy night.

The in­side story of what hap­pened dur­ing those dis­as­trous days at the Arkema plant was sorted out by in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the U.S. Chem­i­cal Safety Board, the fed­eral agency that pro­duced a de­tailed re­port re­leased last month. The CSB also is­sued a series of rec­om­men­da­tions that ex­ec­u­tives and work­ers at other petro­chem­i­cal plants can use to learn the lessons their col­leagues at Arkema learned the hard way dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

That’s just the lat­est ex­am­ple of the good work the CSB has done for two decades: Study­ing ac­ci­dents in the chem­i­cal in­dus­try so that sim­i­lar mishaps can be avoided in the fu­ture. It’s not a reg­u­la­tory body. It does for petro­chem­i­cal plant dis­as­ters what the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board does for air­line crashes. The CSB is a no-non­sense, fact-find­ing agency whose re­ports and rec­om­men­da­tions are widely re­spected within the petro­chem­i­cal in­dus­try. And there’s no telling how many lives it has saved.

But now, for rea­sons that are baf­fling to in­dus­try ex­perts, the CSB’s fu­ture is in doubt be­cause the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has rec­om­mended elim­i­nat­ing it. Our con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives need to send the White House the mes­sage that this agency, which looks out for the safety of av­er­age peo­ple who work and live around petro­chem­i­cal plants, needs to be saved.

We’re not talk­ing about a bloated bu­reau­cracy gone amok. The CSB is one of the small­est agen­cies in the fed­eral govern­ment, with a bud­get of just $12 mil­lion. If this safety board has pre­vented just one petro­chem­i­cal plant dis­as­ter — and in­dus­try ex­perts have no doubt it has — that’s a bar­gain.

But as the Chron­i­cle’s Matt Dempsey re­cently re­ported, its staff of 20 in­ves­ti­ga­tors has shrunk to 12; it’s hard to keep em­ploy­ees in a work­place that’s threat­ened with elim­i­na­tion. Mean­while, the chair­woman of its five-mem­ber board has re­signed, and there’s no in­di­ca­tion she’s go­ing to be re­placed.

As a re­sult of these staffing short­ages, the CSB has been un­able to in­ves­ti­gate ac­ci­dents hap­pen­ing in the Hous­ton area. For ex­am­ple, a Valero re­fin­ery ex­plo­sion in April in­jured 28 work­ers, but the short­handed CSB didn’t de­ploy any in­ves­ti­ga­tors. And when it does study ac­ci­dents, peo­ple still work­ing for the agency worry that it’s not do­ing its job as thor­oughly as be­fore. A memo from a half-dozen of the CSB’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors that was ob­tained by the Chron­i­cle says the agency is ad­vo­cat­ing shorter in­ves­ti­ga­tions that avoid an­a­lyz­ing com­pa­nies’ safety cul­ture.

That’s an im­por­tant point to ex­perts who’ve fol­lowed the CSB’s his­tory. After the 2005 ex­plo­sion at the BP plant in Texas City, the board in­ves­ti­gated not only the physical cause of the dis­as­ter, but also the cor­po­rate de­ci­sions lead­ing up to the ac­ci­dent. BP ex­ec­u­tives took the re­port to heart, adding a board mem­ber fo­cused on safety, in­sti­tut­ing a new in­ci­dent re­port­ing sys­tem and ap­point­ing an in­de­pen­dent panel ex­am­in­ing safety is­sues within the com­pany.

Now there’s se­ri­ous ques­tion whether the CSB could han­dle an­other huge ac­ci­dent like the BP ex­plo­sion. U.S. Rep. Gene Green, the re­tir­ing con­gress­man whose district in­cludes the Hous­ton Ship Chan­nel, bluntly pre­dicts the agency won’t have the staffing ca­pac­ity for an­other BP-scale dis­as­ter.

Green shouldn’t be the only voice ex­press­ing con­cern. Our con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, par­tic­u­larly Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz, know the im­por­tance of the petro­chem­i­cal in­dus­try along the Texas Gulf Coast. Sav­ing the mod­estly funded Chem­i­cal Safety Board should be one of their top pri­or­i­ties.

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