Chemical board's unfinished investigations hinder agency mission, IG finds

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The federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents is weighed down by a backlog of unfinished investigations, hindering its ability to provide information and advice that could prevent future disasters, a report released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General concluded.

A recent Center for Public Integrity story examined the causes of this backlog at the agency, the Chemical Safety Board, and the dissatisfaction with its performance among some in Congress, current and former board members and families affected by unfinished accident investigations.

The inspector general’s report found that the disparity between the number of investigations the agency, known as the CSB, planned to complete and the number it actually finished has widened steadily in recent years. In 2007, the IG found, the agency completed 10 investigations, its goal that year. In 2012, it completed just two of the eight investigations it hoped to finish.

Six current investigations have been underway for more than three years, and the CSB doesn’t have adequate written plans to close them out, the report said. These include a release of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid at the Citgo oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2009, and a 2008 explosion that killed a worker at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas — the site of a 2005 blast that killed 15 workers and injured at least 180 more. In its response to the inspector general, the agency said these two cases, along with others, have been proposed for termination.

Also unfinished is the report on the 2010 explosion that killed seven workers at the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, Wash. This delay has prompted criticism from members of Congress and family members of those who died.

“I’m encouraged by the Inspector General’s recommendations, but this report doesn’t change the fact that after more than three years, the Chemical Safety Board has still failed to complete its investigation of the tragic Tesoro refinery accident in Washington state," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement to the Center. "Until the CSB finishes their open reports and demonstrates they can remain accountable as an independent agency, I will continue to follow their actions, and not just their words.”

A turnover rate of 15 percent among investigators over the past five fiscal years and a lack of formal policies to track investigations’ progress and set goals for completion may be contributing to the delay, the report found.

“[T]his report points out weaknesses that I believe can and should be improved upon,” current board member Mark Griffon wrote the inspector general. “I am very concerned about the significant turnover of senior investigative staff.”

The CSB declined an interview request from the Center. It did provide a statement, and its responses to the inspector general are included with the report.

“The CSB agrees with the OIG that it is desirable to complete reports more quickly — and we even agree with the majority of their recommendations (most of which we already had underway as CSB initiatives),” the statement said. “But this report has largely missed the mark in its analysis, overlooking the significant impact of resource constraints and demands from Congress and other stakeholders for large-scale investigations … ”

The agency acknowledged producing fewer reports in recent years but highlighted its involvement in complex investigations of high-profile accidents, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the explosion at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., last year. It also disputed the inspector general’s calculation of its turnover rate, saying it should include only those who voluntarily left the agency, which it said would place the rate at 9 percent. No investigators had left in the past nine months, the agency said.

The inspector general cited a survey of CSB employees that found that 59 percent said they were dissatisfied with senior leadership — a figure the report said was worse than the government average. A former board member previously told the Center the agency was “grossly mismanaged.” This week, the CSB did not answer Center questions about the survey.