West Virginia chemical spill probe falls to overburdened Chemical Safety Board

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Among the authorities responding to the massive chemical spill near Charleston, W.Va., which has left hundreds of thousands without water, is the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, whose investigative backlog was detailed in a Center for Public Integrity probe last year.

Last week’s spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in processing coal, into the Elk River adds an urgent new case to the federal agency’s workload. The CSB is akin to the National Transportation Safety Board — an independent federal board whose inquiries are intended to unmask systemic breakdowns, paving the way for reform.

Yet the CSB has been dogged by long-running delays that have frustrated Congress, residents and even former board members.

The Center’s report, published last April, revealed how investigations into fatal accidents remain open, sometimes for years, amid what critics cite as a sluggish investigative pace. One former board member called the agency “grossly mismanaged.”

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins fell precipitously since 2006, the Center found. The board’s executives said the agency was stretched thin, forced to decide which of the hundreds of “high-consequence” accidents that take place in the U.S. each year merit its attention. Agency representatives say the board is underfunded and must struggle to respond to requests — many of them from Congress — for investigations.

Even before the West Virginia chemical spill, a steady stream of serious accidents kept the small agency busy, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 to the fire at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, Calif., in 2012 and the explosion at West Fertilizer in Texas last April.

Read the Center probe in full: As critics press for action, Chemical Safety Board investigations languish