Twenty years ago, if a worker was killed in an industrial accident, the task of investigating what went wrong and why fell either to the employer or to the government safety regulator — precisely the two parties most likely to have been at fault. Though slow to change, federal lawmakers eventually created the independent Chemical Safety Board (CSB), a small, seemingly insignificant agency funded in 1998 and tasked with determining the root causes of industrial accidents and recommending changes to prevent them. Over its lifetime, CSB has investigated and analyzed more than 130 accidents responsible for more than 200 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage.
Twice, President Donald J. Trump has tried to eliminate that board, threatening to return us to the era when discovering and making public the cause of a refinery or plant accident is left to those responsible for the accident in the first place. Trump should sit down and have a talk with Tammy Miser.
Years ago, Miser’s brother Shawn was injured at work. She remembers receiving the late-night call at her home in Lexington, Kentucky, and speeding five hours to the St. Joseph Regional Burn Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. When she arrived, she rushed inside and was told that an unidentified, badly burned male had come in.
“We hoped and prayed it wasn’t Shawn,” Miser said. “A hospital pastor told me to prepare for the worst. There was no body hair, no physical markings. My Shawn was ultimately identified by body weight and type. They told us his internal organs were burned beyond repair.”
“It was horrible,” she said, “but we took him off life support and watched him take his last breath.”
Miser learned from CSB that Shawn had been killed by an explosion and fire fueled by dust — in this case, common metal shavings. Mixed with the right amount of oxygen and exposed to an ignition source, the seemingly innocuous dust explodes and burns.
The explosion that killed Shawn was one of three deadly dust accidents investigated in 2003 by the CSB. In all, some 200 accidents each year — explosions, fires, leaks, spills — qualify for a CSB investigation under its mandate. Often, it’s not just the workers but also the surrounding communities that are harmed: For instance, a 2012 Chevron refinery explosion in Richmond, California forced 15,000 residents to seek medical aid; a 2014 tank leak in Charleston, West Virginia, contaminated the drinking water of some 300,000 people.
Yet CSB remains perennially underfunded, understaffed, and under attack. Although the agency was established in 1990, it received no funding until 1998, in the wake of a series of deadly accidents that proved too much for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to handle. As it happened, one of the accidents killed five New Jersey workers near the home of the senator who wrote the legislation that created the board. So began a disturbing pattern that continues today: When a horrible accident occurs, support for CSB grows; but as the accident fades from memory, support wanes.
Today, the agency has the resources to investigate only a sliver of the industrial accidents that occur each year. Its budget has never topped $11 million, a pittance compared to the $100 million a year appropriated to the National Transportation Safety Board, on which CSB is modeled. But NTSB investigates transportation accidents, and all of us — Congress members and CEOs included — take trains and airplanes. Most of us do not work in refineries or on factory floors.
The legitimacy of the board and its decisions have been challenged by nearly everyone — companies and trade associations, safety regulators, members of Congress, even labor unions. When a plant blows up, however, everybody wants to know what happened and why, but no one wants the finger publicly pointed at them.
After the Richmond refinery explosion, for instance, Chevron played down the accident and challenged CSB’s authority to investigate. But the investigation moved ahead anyway, in part because the accident was so visible: Black smoke could be seen throughout the San Francisco Bay area, and dangerous particulates were blasted into the nearby community. It was the last straw in a long-running and volatile relationship between the community and the company.
The board found that the explosion was caused by a broken and badly corroded pipe, which released flammable hydrocarbon fluid that subsequently caught fire. The board also found that on at least six occasions spanning more than a decade, Chevron management had been advised by its engineers that the carbon-steel piping was prone to corrosion and should be replaced, or at least subjected to an intense inspection program. However, management ignored the recommendations.
CSB investigations over the years revealed that such mishaps were widespread in the petrochemical industry. Agency reports uncovered fundamental flaws in plant management and government regulatory oversight at facilities nationwide. In 2012 alone, 125 significant accidents — leaking tanks, fires, piping failures — occurred at the nation’s 150 refineries, and financial losses from refinery accidents in the U.S. were three times higher than in other countries.
As a result, CSB staff and board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso urged sweeping changes in U.S. refinery regulations, beginning with Chevron. The board recommended that the U.S. adopt a “safety case” approach — a regulatory scheme commonly used in Europe that places the onus for safety management on the operator and calls for company-developed regulations to be overseen by the safety regulator and plant workers. The recommendations were backed by residents, safety advocates, and local union leaders. California legislators even adopted CSB’s broad recommendations and used them as the foundation to overhaul the state’s refinery safety regulations. Washington state officials are now considering doing the same.
But for some CSB members, national unions, and Chevron executives, the board’s recommendations went too far. The safety case approach was put on hold, a CSB member quit, and some CSB staff left and brought complaints about the board’s management to Congress.
The squabbles, charges, and countercharges caught the eyes of Republicans on a congressional oversight committee, and the committee began an investigation. The investigation dragged on and eventually members sought Moure-Eraso’s resignation. In a terse statement in March 2015, a White House spokesman announced that the White House had “asked for and received Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso’s resignation.”
A few months later, the Senate confirmed a new chairperson who had no experience in chemical manufacturing. Years later, the board is still working to rebuild, replenish staff, and increase its investigatory presence.
It does so in an unfriendly political climate. President Trump called to eliminate funding for the CSB in his 2018 and 2019 budget proposals, and he’s shown no indications that he’ll change that stance. Despite his recommendations, Congress has continued to fund the board, albeit at the same low levels it’s received in the past.
Amid the chorus of criticism, one group has consistently supported increased funding for the CSB: family members, like Tammy Miser, who have seen loved ones hurt or killed in industrial accidents. Shortly after her brother’s death, Miser formed the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, a nonprofit that helps people whose lives have been devastated by an on-the-job death. She’s also testified to Congress and pressed OSHA to adopt better industrial safety laws. Although the U.S. has yet to adopt regulations to prevent industrial dust explosions like the one that killed her brother, a new industry has sprung up to promote dust safety, she notes.
“None of this would have been possible,” she says, “without the Chemical Safety Board.”
Jeff Johnson is a Washington, D.C., based reporter who has written on the environment and industrial practices for 30 years. Much of his research on industrial safety was funded by The Alicia Patterson Foundation.