Editor’s note, April 18: An explosion Wednesday at a fertilizer plant north of Waco, Texas, killed between five and 15 people, authorities say, and injured more than 160. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that investigates chemical accidents and issues safety recommendations, says it expects a “large investigative team” to arrive at the scene this afternoon. As the Center for Public Integrity reported Wednesday, the board has been criticized for failing to complete investigations in a timely manner.
On April 2, 2010, an explosion at the Tesoro Corp. oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killed five workers instantly and severely burned two others, who succumbed to their wounds.
Eighteen days later, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing a massive oil spill.
In both cases, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — an independent agency modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board — launched investigations. Like the NTSB, the Chemical Safety Board is supposed to follow such probes with recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies.
Yet three years after Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon, both inquiries remain open — exemplars of a chemical board under attack for what critics call its sluggish investigative pace and short attention span. A former board member calls the agency “grossly mismanaged.”
The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations — one more than five years old — are incomplete.
As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.