Fluoride Action Network

A Dangerous Idea: Eliminating the Chemical Safety Board

Source: New York Times | July 24th, 2017 | By Steve Early
Industry type: Oil Refineries

RICHMOND, Calif. — The United States Chemical Safety Board is a federal watchdog with more bark than bite. It has five board members, a tiny staff of less than 50 and a budget of some $11 million a year. Its mission is to investigate fires and explosions in oil refineries and chemical plants.

The board can’t impose financial penalties for corporate misbehavior and has no rules of its own to enforce. It merely issues fact-finding reports, with accompanying technical and policy recommendations. Labor and management can use this valuable information to avoid future accidents, or ignore it.

But its bark can be effective. The board’s reports have their own power, laying bare corporate negligence or ineptitude, and indentifyng hazards that communities may not realize are in their own backyards.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the board could soon be gone, despite its consultative approach and reliance on voluntary compliance. Under President Trump’s 2018 fiscal year budget proposal, the agency, which opened in 1998, would be eliminated because its role is “largely duplicative” of efforts by other agencies, presumably the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. Both of those agencies would also experience cuts to reduce “over-regulation” of industry.

If the board is abolished, hundreds of thousands of people who live near chemical factories and refineries will be at greater risk. I came to appreciate the board five years ago, when its experts came here to my hometown to investigate a huge fire at the Chevron refinery at the end of my street.

In August 2012, Chevron was well on its way to making annual profits of $25 billion. But delayed maintenance work at its century-old Richmond refinery led to a catastrophic pipe failure and fire, producing a towering cloud of toxic smoke. Nineteen workers only narrowly escaped death. The Chemical Safety Board found that the plant’s managers had failed to shut down the refinery’s crude unit even though they knew it had a hazardous leak. Fifteen thousand people who live near the refinery sought medical attention for smoke exposure.

The board found similar flaws in the safety culture of Exxon Mobil after a huge explosion in February 2015 at its refinery in Torrance, Calif. According to a recent Justice Department lawsuit, the blast catapulted a 40-ton piece of equipment perilously close to a tank containing thousands of gallons of hydrofluoric acid, which can form a toxic cloud when released. Exposure to hydrofluoric acid can cause serious injury and death, which is why many Torrance residents want it banned there.

Why would reporting like this lead to abolishing an agency that annually costs taxpayers less than a single “massive ordnance air blast bomb” of the sort recently dropped in Afghanistan? Certainly, fossil fuel refiners and chemical manufacturers will be glad to say goodbye to the Chemical Safety Board for several reasons.

These companies don’t like sharing information with the public, as demonstrated by Exxon Mobil’s refusal to comply with board subpoenas seeking data about cost-cutting measures at the Torrance refinery and potential health effects of the chemical ash showered on refinery neighbors by the explosion.

In addition, lawsuits filed against companies that have come under the board’s scrunity sometimes echo its findings, like the one Richmond filed against Chevron citing the company’s “years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”

Finally, the results of the board’s investigations can spur or be used to support safety initiatives by states. After the Chevron fire, the Blue Green Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, began lobbying Gov. Jerry Brown to strengthen California’s occupational health and safety standards by incorporating the board’s recommendations for better “process safety management” in the oil industry. In May, California adopted what advocates say are the nation’s strongest refinery safety regulations.

Anyone similarly concerned about industrial safety, community health or air quality should protest the proposed elimination of the Chemical Safety Board.

The companies it nudges in the right direction are not known for their self-reporting or self-policing. Even in California, with its strong local safety standards, oil refinery neighbors need all the government watchdogs we can get.