America, we have a problem. And it promises to get worse.

2 Killed in Explosion at West Virginia Industrial Plant
Insurance Journal, May 30, 2017

Residents Shaken By Oil Tank Explosion
CBS, May 26, 207

Chemical reaction forces evacuation of Waco industrial plant
May 12, 2017

Officials Blame Mechanical Failure For Explosion at Dow Plant
Chem.Info-Mar 30, 2017

Future in Jeopardy? McIntosh residents in fear after Olin chlori …
FOX10 News-Mar 23, 2017

UPDATE: Hazmat responds to chemical reaction at South Bend …
WNDU-TV-Mar 16, 2017

Another chlorine gas leak occurs at Olin chemical plant 
FOX10 News-Mar 17, 2017

Police officer sick after responding to Olin chemical chlorine leak
FOX10 News-Mar 7, 2017

Chemicals left in barrels leave workers and neighborhoods at risk
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-Feb 15, 2017

Fire and explosions at Tulsa Port of Catoosa chemical plant 4, 2017

Chemical leak hits Shell facility, fire at ExxonMobil plant in separate …
Channel NewsAsia-Jan 11, 2017

1 critically injured in explosion at Felda chemical plant
NBC Channel 2 – January 9, 2017

Coroner: 1 killed, 2 injured in accident at Calhoun Co. plant
The State-Dec 6, 2016

Three held for observation after chlorine leak near Baton Rouge
CBS News-Dec 2, 2016

Chemical fog in Atchison sends dozens to hospitals
KMBC Kansas City-Oct 21, 2016

Kansas chemical plant spill: Accident causes ‘noxious cloud’ and …
The Independent-Oct 21, 2016

Chemical plant incidents prompt evacuations in Mont Belvieu
KTRK-TV-Jun 26, 2016

Chemical fog in Atchison sends dozens to hospitals
KMBC Kansas City-Oct 21, 2016

2 killed in industrial accident at Wichita-area plant
KAKE-Jun 30, 2016

Badly burned man airlifted to hospital after accident at Deer Park …
KTRK-TV-Aug 11, 2016

2 killed in industrial accident at Wichita-area plant
KAKE-Jun 30, 2016

The list above is a very quick and dirty collection of only of a few (those significant enough to merit a newspaper article) of the chemical incidents that have occurred in the US in the last several months. But instead of investing more money into preventing these incidents — many of which could have turned into major catastrophes — the Trump administration is threatening to roll back a modernized EPA regulation, and more significantly, Trump is proposing to kill the Chemical Safety Board (CSB)*, an agency specifically created by Congress to prevent catastrophic chemical incidents.

The CSB was authorized by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 in the wake of catastrophic chemical plant accidents in this country, like the Philips 66 explosion, which killed 23 workers in 1989, and incidents around the world, like the Bhopal chemical release that killed thousands in India in the mid-1980s. It’s a tiny agency, with a budget of less than $12 million, five board members and a staff of less than 50

Death Sentence: The President’s FY 2018 Budget

The President’s FY 2018 budget proposal provides about $8 million to the CSB for funeral expenses — funding  for the Board to use to shut down its operations. The budget claims that the CSB is “duplicative” and that it “overlaps with other agency investigative authorities.”  The budget goes on to allege that, although the Board has done good work, “more often than not, its overlap with other agency investigative authorities has generated unhelpful friction. In recent years, CSB’s recommendations have also been focused on the need for greater regulation of industry, which has frustrated both regulators and industry.”

This is wrong.

Unlike OSHA and EPA, the CSB has no enforcement authority and issues no citations or penalties. Modeled after the National Transportation and Safety board, it issues recommendations to government agencies like OSHA and EPA, as well as industry associations and labor unions. It’s real value is conducting root cause analyses of chemical disasters. While OSHA and EPA can only go after specific violations of their regulations and standards, the CSB can go way beyond identifying violations to address other causes, and then urge the agencies to address them. Consequently, the CSB often identifies problems can accident causes that EPA or OSHA either haven’t seen or are not able to address.  In addition to the reports and recommendations, the CSB has created a number of highly popular videos that describe in simple plain language and graphics the causes of highly complex chemical incidents.

Regarding the “unhelpful friction” with other agencies, it is true that OSHA has sometimes found some of the CSB’s regulatory recommendations impractical considering how long it takes OSHA to issue standards, but many of the CSB’s recommendations are currently forming the basis of OSHA’s revision of its 1992 Process Safety Management standard.  Of course, the fact that CSB recommendations may sometimes lead to additional regulations may be the real reason that the regulation-averse Trump administration wants to deep six the agency.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board be abolished,” — Stephen Brown, vice president, Tesoro Corp

Ironically, considering the President’s complaint that its regulations have also frustrated industry, there has been no significant industry opposition to the Board’s work and many in the chemical industry strongly support the CSB, as Bloomberg  reported earlier this year,

“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board be abolished,” said Stephen Brown, a vice president with Tesoro Corp., an oil refiner that was the focus of a 2014 CSB report, in a telephone interview. “The goal is a fully functional, professional investigative body that approaches things in a professional manner with integrity.”

And a Forbes article quotes spokespersons from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Center for Chemical Process Safety, American Chemical Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and former CSB Board Member Gary Visscher, who served on the CSB during the Bush administration from 2004 to 2009

Even the Chlorine Institute, which has been the subject of a number of CSB recommendations, opposes the Board’s elimination.  In a letter to Congress, Chlorine Institute President Frank Reiner said the Institute “fully supports” the agency and stresses that  “The CSB fills a vital role in the chemical industry and we strongly encourage the full funding of the CSB.”

And aside from some serious management issues several years ago, there have been no one in Congress had expressed serious concerns about the Board’s role or conduct.

The CSB’s True Value

As mentioned above, the CSB’s true value is its authority to go beyond simple regulatory violations to look at the root causes of incidents, and other issues that the EPA or OSHA are not able to address. Take one example: The CSB’s report of the catastrophic Texas City BP refinery explosion in 2015 that killed 15 workers. While OSHA found numerous violations of its Process Safety Management standard and issued hundreds of violations with a huge (for OSHA) $21 million dollar penalty, the CSB report went far deeper. For example, the CSB identified serious problems how BP valued personal safety over process safety, failed to evaluate the “safety implications of major organizational, personnel, and policy changes,” and failed to “provide adequate resources to prevent major accidents,” so that “budget cuts impaired process safety performance at the Texas City refinery.”  Identifying problem with  the refinery’s “safety culture,” the CSB noted that the company had failed to “create an effective reporting and learning culture; reporting bad news was not encouraged. Incidents were often ineffectively investigated and appropriate corrective actions not taken.”

The CSB also explored other areas that OSHA or EPA are unable to touch, such as fatigue of the plant operators. The CSB noted that “the Day Board Operator had been working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for 29 consecutive days,” hardly conducive to responding effectively to a rapidly deteriorating safety issues at a highly complex refinery.

The other problem, of course, is not just looking back at the chemical plants incidents, like West or BP that we’ve experienced over the past decades, but much larger incidents that the CSB seeks to prevent. The United Steelworkers represents  workers in two-thirds of the country’s refining capacity plants, and is highly concerned about the CSB’s possible demise.  As Mike Wright, director of health, safety, and environment for the United Steelworkers, warns in The Nation:  “There are things that American industry does that would make accidents like Bhopal look small,”  “There are some things which in a worst-case scenario could affect a million people.”

More than 200,000 people live within three miles of the plant.  ExxonMobil estimates in a worst-case scenario release of hydrofluoric acid, all of them within that distance could be injured or even die.

For example, the CSB just issued a report on the 2015 explosion that ripped through an ExxonMobil  refinery in  Torrance, California. While the explosion “only” injured four contract employees, started  two small fires, caused multiple” leaks of flammable liquids, and showered industrial fallout  on nearby residential neighborhoods, it could have been much worse.  While the incident was not serious in terms of injuries or damage, it came close to developing into a catastrophe of historical proportions. An 80,000 pound chunk of the electrostatic precipitator flew 12 stories up before crashing three feet from a tank containing  50,000 pounds of  hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic and volatile material and one of the most hazardous chemicals used in refineries. HF, if released, can form a vapor cloud that can cause organ failure and death in humans at extremely low levels.

CSB Chair Vanessa Sutherland’s CBS News interview about the near miss is enough to send shivers up anyone’s spine:

“We were really, really lucky,” Sutherland said. “I think it is of concern to us, that we have a facility that had a near miss, which I actually feel very lucky about. It could have been much more catastrophic.”

Catastrophic, she says, because when the explosion happened, a piece of equipment weighing 80,000 pounds was sent flying nearly 100 feet.

Sources say a photo submitted to federal investigators and obtained by CBS News shows that piece landed just a few feet from a tank containing a form of hydrofluoric acid. It’s a highly toxic chemical that if released, can form a cloud of toxic gas that can drift for miles, potentially causing thousands of injuries and even death.

“HF, in our view, and my view, is one of the most hazardous and deadly chemicals. In worst-case scenarios, at deadly levels, it causes asphyxiation because once inhaled it causes respiratory problems that build up fluid and you ultimately drown,” said Sutherland.

More than 200,000 people live within three miles of the plant. And in documents filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, ExxonMobil itself estimates in a worst-case scenario release of hydrofluoric acid, all of them within that distance could be injured or even die.

The CSB continues to seek additional information from ExxonMobil about HF hazards at the plant.  The company has refused to cooperate, forcing the CSB to go to court to compel ExxonMobil to release the documents.

No one wants a major chemical disaster in their district, especially after they voted against the only agency that performs thorough investigations. — Paul Orum

Despite the fact that the CSB can “only” issue recommendations, it has influenced safety in the American chemical industry. The New Jersey Work Environment Council has listed a number of improvements that have been made due to the Board’s work:

  •  Industrial workers are more aware of the hazards of combustible dust.
  • Firefighters are being trained on rescue procedures for confined spaces and also on ammonium nitrate’s explosive potential.
  •  The oil refining industry is moving office workers away from processing areas, and is building blast resistant control centers for people who must work nearby.
  • Greater attention is paid to safety in chemistry classrooms and research labs.
  • OSHA and EPA have issued alerts on hazardous waste, reactive chemicals, and other risks.

In addition, states have adopted new safeguards for chemical safety:

  • North Carolina, Kentucky, and New Jersey trained fire inspectors on prevention of dust explosions.
  • Colorado took measures to protect emergency responders during rescues in confined space.
  • Mississippi improved safeguards for communities with oil and gas sites.
  • West Virginia enhanced spill prevention measures.
  • Connecticut banned flammable gas for cleaning pipes.
  • New Jersey issued policies to prevent runaway chemical reactions; and
  • New York City strengthened its fire code to address chemical risks.

The USW’s Mike Wright points to another improvement caused by a Board report:

After a 2012 fire at a Chevron Corp. refinery in Richmond, California, the CSB discovered that the pipe used was subject to corrosion and rupture because of the materials it carried. Though there were no rules against using that kind of pipe, the industry changed its practice because of the CSB, Wright said in a phone interview.

“We know CSB recommendations have made our plants safer, not just for workers but for residents surrounding those plants,” he said. “When a chemical accident is prevented, it doesn’t make news.”

What Is To Be Done?

If you work in or live near a refinery, chemical plant or any facility that uses large amounts of chemicals, your life and health could be at risk in the event of a catastrophic chemical release or explosion. The Chemical Safety Board is one of the few agencies in the Federal government that addresses chemical plant issues, and the only agency that has the ability to conduct root cause analyses and address the inter-relationship of federal regulations, state laws and industry standards to develop a much more comprehensive picture of chemical safety problems and their solutions.

In  other words, your life may depend on saving the CSB.

We can always hope that reason will prevail,  As chemical safety consultant Paul Orum said, no one wants a major chemical disaster in their district, especially after they voted against the only agency that performs thorough investigations. “Chemical incidents are highly visible when they happen,” he said. “There’s smoke, flames and news cameras. If it looks like they’ve undermined safety, it could come back to bite them.”

But nothing good happens without a lot of work showing Congress that people care.

Call and write your Congressional Representatives and members of the Appropriations Committees and urge them to maintain $11.6 million in funding for CSB.

The Message:

  • Fully fund the Chemical Safety Board
  • The CSB plays a unique role in protecting our health and lives.
  • Our health, lives and jobs are worth the small amount of money ($11.6 million) that the CSB needs.
  • You don’t want a chemical plant or refinery disaster in your district.

Note that the Subcommittees for the CSB are different from those that cover OSHA.

House Committee on Appropriations

Chairman: Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, 2306 Rayburn HOB, Wash., D.C. 20515, Phone: (202) 225-5034 Fax: 202/225-3186

Ranking Member: Rep. Nita Lowey, 2365 Rayburn HOB, Wash., D.C. 20515, Phone: (202) 225-6506 Fax: (202) 225-0546

House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, & Related Agencies

Chairman: Rep. Ken Calvert, 2205 Rayburn HOB, Wash., D.C. 20515, Phone: (202) 225-1986 Fax: (202) 225-2004

Ranking Member: Rep. Betty McCollum, 2256 Rayburn HOB, Wash, D.C. 20515, Phone: (202) 225-6631 Fax: (202) 225-1968

Senate Committee on Appropriations

Chairman: Senator Thad Cochran, 113 Dirksen SOB, Wash., D.C. 20510, Phone: (202) 224-5054

Ranking Member: Senator Patrick Leahy, 437 Russell SOB, Wash., D.C. 20510, Phone: (202) 224-3479 Fax: (202) 224-4242

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment & Related Agencies

Chairwoman: Senator Lisa Murkowski, 522 Hart SOB, Wash., D.C. 20510, Phone: (202) 224-6665 Fax: (202) 224-5301

Ranking Member: Senator Tom Udall, 531 Hart SOB, Wash., D.C. 20510 Phone: (202) 224-6621 Fax: (202) 224-5301


*Disclaimer: I worked for the CSB as a Recommendations Manager from 2002 to 2007.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Confined Space

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading