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Washington Update

Washington Update: Cooperation is key

August 26, 2013

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Many of us learn from a young age that cooperation and trust are keys to achieving our goals. The Chemical Safety Board operates in much the same way.

CSB’s primary objective is to investigate chemical incidents by determining what caused them and provide recommendations on how to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

Much of what CSB relies on comes straight from people who were present during a particular situation – workers or supervisors who may be able to shed light on work practices or other details leading up to a devastating event. This can be accomplished only with the cooperation of these individuals, CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso stated during a June 27 Senate committee hearing.

“We base our work mostly in what a witness will tell us in good faith that was their experience before the accident,” he told members of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “We believe very strongly that workers and managers should be allowed to tell the truth to the CSB on these accidents without fear of retaliation or persecution.”

Unfortunately, that cooperation may be jeopardized precisely because witnesses may fear punishment.

As part of its investigation of the 2012 Chevron refinery fire in California, the Environmental Protection Agency subpoenaed CSB documents and investigators.

Unlike CSB, enforcement agencies such as EPA and OSHA seek to learn what laws may have been broken that contributed to disasters, and to cite employers for those violations.

CSB often conducts investigations parallel with other federal and local government agencies, Moure-Eraso said during the hearing. Although CSB’s goals are different from enforcement agencies, he said those goals are equally important and the agencies should be able to work together to obtain the needed information.

But issuing subpoenas is not a move suggesting friendly cooperation between agencies, an idea not lost on committee ranking member Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).

“It fundamentally threatens CSB’s ability to do its job and thereby prevent future accidents,” said the senator, adding CSB could ultimately receive less cooperation, documents and information as a result of witnesses who fear being punished by enforcement authorities.

Vitter later quoted a February letter Moure-Eraso sent to Congress members criticizing EPA’s actions. Noting EPA’s greater budget and manpower, Moure-Eraso wrote that the enforcement agency should use its own staff and resources to conduct its investigations, and not seek the “wholesale repurposing of the CSB investigative record.”

This is not the only instance in which CSB’s independence has been jeopardized, according to Moure-Eraso. The June hearing occurred after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives blocked or limited CSB investigators access to the site of the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion and fire in West, TX, in which at least 15 people died. During a period of more than a month, ATF exerted “essentially exclusive control” of the site by altering or removing nearly all physical evidence, Moure-Eraso said.

“Throughout this period, the incident site was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers, and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire,” Moure-Eraso wrote in a March 17 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the EPW committee.

When confronted by Vitter about how such actions, specifically subpoenas, against CSB can jeopardize its investigators’ ability to do their job, Barry Breen, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, referred Vitter to the Department of Justice – which issues the subpoenas, but at the request of EPA. Breen suggested the topic could be further discussed outside of a public hearing, which Vitter saw no reason for.

CSB is an independent agency for a reason – people can speak to its investigators without fear of being punished. Likewise, the board, without fear, can issue recommendations to and critiques of organizations and other government agencies – from the local level all the way up to federal agencies.

Putting up roadblocks to stop CSB from doing its job is damaging, Vitter warned. “You’re going to shut them down,” he said.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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