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The Chemical Safety Board has a difficult job.
The agency is tasked with investigating industrial chemical incidents and offering recommendations to prevent future tragedies. But that’s not what makes the job difficult. What makes it difficult is that no agency has to take up those recommendations.
CSB is an independent agency. That makes it, to a degree, answerable to no one. It’s free to investigate an incident without fear (in theory) of an oversight agency such as OSHA telling it what to do or what type of findings to release. This is good, obviously, but it goes both ways – CSB can’t force an agency to change.
As such, the small investigative agency has only two tools at its disposal to pressure agencies to change – its investigative reports and voices on Capitol Hill.
The Environmental Protective Agency faced the brunt of both those tools at a June 27 Senate committee hearing investigating ways to prevent catastrophic chemical explosions such as what occurred in April at the fertilizer plant in West, TX.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, continually hammered EPA’s representative, Barry Breen, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, on his agency’s failure to implement recommendations CSB issued in 2002.
His response was, essentially, that EPA interpreted the recommendations differently than Boxer did. Here’s a brief, amended exchange:
Boxer: Are you questioning the fact that the CSB never said what [board chair Rafael] Moure-Eraso said here today, that you ought to take a look at “storing these reactive chemicals in non-combustible bins”? Are you saying they never suggested anything like that, that you look at your Risk Management Plan and amend those so that the storage of these potentially explosive chemicals is changed? Are you suggesting they never said that?
Breen: What [the recommendations] said was “reactivity is not necessarily an intrinsic property of a chemical substance. It’s related to process specific factors.” And so it went on to conclude that lists of chemicals is an inadequate approach. … So the actual recommendation I didn’t read as including the idea of finding a list of reactive chemicals and adding them to the RMP, but to instead deal with reactive hazards.
Boxer: Well, sir, I don’t agree.
Boxer later went on to suggest EPA was “putting a slant” on CSB’s recommendations. Reflecting on EPA’s lack of action on the decade-old CSB recommendations and Breen’s hazy response to a question on when his agency would begin implementing policy changes to address hazards similar to West, TX, Boxer was blunt: “Lives are being lost and recommendations were made a long time ago, and nothing’s happening,” she said.
The senator said repeatedly during the hearing that many solutions to the problems that lead to catastrophic explosions don’t need legislation, but action. Unfortunately, when it comes to recommendations from an independent agency such as CSB, sometimes legislation is necessary to force action.
The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.