Federal Agency Tasked With Investing Chemical Incidents Is Struggling To Keep Up

Investigations by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, including at Houston-area facilities, “slowed to a crawl” in recent years because of budget cuts and deregulation.

By Alexandra HartJuly 27, 2021 2:57 pm, , ,

Enter “Houston chemical incident” or “Houston plant explosion” into an internet search engine and you’ll get no shortage of results. Many Texans may remember the International Terminals Company fire, also known as the the Deer Park Fire that shut down the Houston Ship Channel for three days in 2019.

Last year, there was an explosion at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing facility that left two employees dead. And just last week, a chemical leak at a Dow facility in La Porte forced evacuations. Those are just a few recent examples.

But there is an agency in charge of investigating incidents like these: the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, or the CSB. But Houston Chronicle editorial writer Nick Powell questioned in a recent editorial just how well the agency is doing its job. He spoke with Texas Standard about his findings.

Powell on how the CSB works:

“The CSB has been around for, I think, about 23 years. And it was really known as a very kind of no-nonsense, buttoned down, fact-finding agency,” Powell said. “It doesn’t really have any enforcement power like the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] or OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. But they go in after these explosions; they do a very thorough investigation, they interview workers and they release these public reports with very detailed recommendations on how to fix things.”

On agency cutbacks in recent years:

“Particularly under the Trump administration, the agency kind of fell on hard times. And the Trump administration was kind of notorious for its anti-regulation efforts. And the CSB certainly fell under its crosshairs in that sense. And as a result, a lot of their investigations have slowed to a crawl.”

On the agency’s direction under a new administration:

“There’s some positive signs. The Biden administration proposed raising the CSB budget slightly, from $12 million to $13.4 million, which would still pale in comparison to what it once was. But that is an improvement, and it would allow the agency to hire many more investigators, and start to whittle away at this backlog. Biden also has nominated three people to fill some of the four open board seats that the Trump administration had let expire. And that’s even more crucial than the budget, I think.”

On the agency’s role in enforcing the law:

“They can only do so much. I mean, the enforcement really lies with the EPA. But that’s where the CSB can really be a crucial kind of conduit for change: the EPA is revising its risk-management rules, which are the kind of core federal regulations that involve the prevention of major chemical releases, explosions, fires, the kind of stuff that the CSB goes in and investigates. … Completing those outstanding investigations could shape how the federal government handles these disasters in the future.

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