Why strong regulatory agencies matter

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I have always believed that if we are doing our job right at the Center for Public Integrity, then our investigations should anticipate the news. That was the case on Wednesday. The Center posted an important story early that morning about the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s failure to complete its investigations into chemical accidents in a timely manner. Further, we reported that a former member of the board believed the agency was being “grossly mismanaged.”

Later that same day, an explosion tore through a fertilizer plant north of Waco in Central Texas, killing more than a dozen people and injuring more than 150, authorities say. The horrific accident was similar to other deadly industrial accidents described in our piece — accidents requiring Chemical Safety Board investigations that have dragged on, in some cases for years. Sluggish and incomplete investigations are important because finished reports often contain recommendations that can save lives going forward. Delay has a human cost.

Each year there are some 200 serious industrial accidents like the fertilizer plant explosion that are deemed to be of “high consequence.” Yet the Chemical Safety Board — modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board — is able to investigate only a handful, and then often takes years more to issue a report.

To be fair, the Board says it is stretched thin with a budget of only $10.5 million. And as the number of such serious accidents rise, the Board’s budget has remained flat. Congress has been unwilling to come up with more resources, the Board says.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, it was 28 years ago that the fertilizer plant in Waco was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  (OSHA). There were “serious” violations reported at that time. The truth is the powerful chemical industry as a whole is quietly in favor of a weak and ineffective regulatory regime.  

Today it is difficult — if not impossible — to track exactly how many chemical accidents occur in the U.S. Chemical plants are required to report accidental releases of many substances to the National Response Center, but this data, maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard for some reason, is, to put it bluntly, a mess.

In 2009, the Chemical Safety Board issued its intent to propose a rule that would require companies to report accidental chemical releases. The proposal received support from many organizations focused on chemical safety which have long advocated for a more complete reporting system that would help identify trends and prevent future accidents. However, industry groups, such as the American Chemistry Council, and major companies, such as Dow Chemical, pushed back, trying to narrow the scope of the rule or block it entirely. And so the rule appears to have stalled.

If plants are reporting releases whenever they occur, then a regulatory body, the press and the public could all more easily tell what plants were prone to trouble and might be in danger of exploding. Such information would be critical to know in advance, because smaller incidents are often precursors to larger disasters, like the one in Waco. Transparency and accountability in this area are fundamental to public safety.

Until Next Week,

Bill