Editorial: Who’s counting all Texas’ explosions? Not the Chemical Safety Board.


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Editorial: Who’s counting all Texas’ explosions? Not the Chemical Safety Board.

Runoff from the extinguished petrochemical tank fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company is blocked by an oil skimming bouy on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Deer Park. Fire crews extinguished the blaze at ITC about 3 a.m., Wednesday, almost four days after it started, which caused a plume of black smoke to linger over the Houston area.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

In Houston, living in close proximity to chemical breakdowns is a way of life. Odd, sulfuric aromas linger in the summer humidity. Flaring from petrochemical facilities light up the night sky. Purple smoke plumes lend a dystopian allure to the industrial landscape.

Of course, none of this is supposed to be normal. The Houston Chronicle reported several years ago that the region has a chemical fire or explosion every six weeks on average. Yet in just the past eight days, Houstonians were reminded three times of our precarious relationship with deadly chemicals.

On Saturday, 65 people came down with “respiratory distress” at a water park in Spring after they were exposed to bleach and sulfuric acid. In Galena Park on Tuesday, the roof of a chemical tank at a refinery collapsed, releasing a “garlic-like smell,” sickening nearby residents. In La Porte on Wednesday, a hazardous compound leaked from an over-pressurized tank truck, sparking fears of an explosion at a nearby Dow Chemical plant and prompting evacuation and shelter-in-place orders.

Houston’s chemical releases and poor air quality affect us all. But it’s the fence-line communities in and around petrochemical plants that are most at-risk when disaster strikes — and the most dependent on government experts to investigate such incidents and to try to prevent them from happening again.

That’s why the current state of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is almost as alarming as the incidents they’re supposed to be probing.

Not too long ago, the board was a no-nonsense, fact-finding agency whose reports and recommendations were widely respected within the petrochemical industry. Its report on the Arkema plant disaster during Hurricane Harvey brought to light harrowing details of volatile organic peroxides decomposing and catching fire. When the ITC facility in Deer Park caught fire in 2019, sending a black plume of smoke across Harris County, the board discovered in a preliminary investigation that the facility was not equipped with gas detection alarms or emergency shutoff valves that could have isolated the blaze.

While the agency does not have enforcement power, its investigative findings serve as a blueprint for companies to improve their safety cultures. After the 2005 explosion at the BP plant in Texas City, the board investigated not only the physical cause, but also the corporate decisions leading up to the disaster. BP executives took the report to heart, adding a board member focused on safety, instituting a new incident reporting system and appointing an independent panel examining safety issues within the company.

At its peak, the CSB, as it is known, was a repository of chemical safety knowledge, with a level of specialization that federal regulators such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration don’t have.

So what happened? The CSB was one of many federal agencies denuded by the Trump administration’s sweeping anti-regulatory efforts. The board now has a backlog of 19 site investigations — an unprecedented number in the agency’s 23-year history. Seven are in Texas. Four in the Houston area include the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing explosion last year, the ITC fire and the KMCO plant in Crosby.

The board has also failed to recruit qualified investigators with a broad range of experience to properly probe chemical incidents. The CSB employs only 12 investigators, nearly half the number of staff from previous years — and six were hired in the past year.

While President Donald Trump at one point recommended eliminating the agency altogether, he settled for rendering it hopelessly inert. He allowed the terms of the agency’s five-person board to expire, then in March 2020 installed Katherine Lemos, a pilot, flight instructor and former accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, as the chairwoman for a five-year term.

Lemos essentially has unilateral authority, a “quorum of one” responsible for executing budgeting decisions, strategy, investigations and approving all report findings and safety recommendations. That grasp for power hasn’t yielded more efficient results. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have questioned Lemos’ leadership and the agency’s ongoing challenges. In March, worker advocates alleged that Lemos directed the board to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in the wake of a deadly nitrogen leak in January at a Georgia poultry plant which employed Latino workers.

A 2020 inspector general report noted that a single CSB board member is “unlikely to have the technical qualifications or time to perform the required board duties.”

A 2018 memo from a half-dozen CSB investigators that was obtained by the Chronicle says the agency had already begun advocating shorter investigations that avoid analyzing companies’ safety culture. Instead, there are “desk investigations,” in which the board asks chemical companies for their internal investigation files, with no follow-up interviews of affected workers or residents. .

This lack of diligence and misplaced faith in petrochemical companies to police themselves is antithetical to the agency’s mission. The people who suffer harm in these chemical disasters are often limited in their power to seek accountability from giant corporations with highly skilled lawyers and political influence. The CSB should be a critical conduit for change.

Under the Biden administration, the EPA is revising its risk management rule — the core federal regulations involving prevention of major chemical releases, explosions and fires. A fully staffed CSB that can complete its outstanding investigations could use those findings to shape how the federal government handles these disasters in the future.

Another proactive step from the Biden administration: his nomination of three qualified individuals with extensive background in chemical safety for the vacant CSB board seats. If confirmed, they’d provide a crucial counterweight to Lemos, who has attempted to eliminate the authority of other board members over agency rules and regulations, budget, and statements to Congress or the president. In anticipation of the new members, Lemos needs to officially clarify the vital functions of their positions and the limitations of her own.

Biden also proposes raising the CSB budget slightly, from $12 million to $13.4 million, which could allow the agency to hire more qualified investigators and staff. But the agency can’t just take the money and run. Once the three board members are confirmed, the CSB should move quickly in filling vacant positions and place an emphasis on hiring investigators with a diverse array of experiences — from toxicology to public health to risk assessment.

As the leading petrochemical hub in the nation, Houston is uniquely threatened by chemical disasters. If a massive explosion on the scale of Texas City’s in 2005 or West’s in 2013 happened today, we’d need the keen eyes and neutrality of federal experts to find out what happened and what can keep it from happening again.

One of the first executive orders President Joe Biden issued was a commitment to making environmental justice part of every agency’s mission. In Houston, we’re counting on the CSB to make that lofty goal a reality.


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