OUTLOOK ’10: US chem safety board hopes to expand, seeks funding

31 December 2009 16:23  [Source: ICIS news]

CSB seeks funding for investigationsHOUSTON (ICIS news)--The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has a detailed watch list for 2010 and beyond for improving the safety of the chemical industry.

But to tackle those issues in the depth it wants, the CSB may need additional funding help from US legislators. The CSB was not able to investigate a number of late-year 2009 incidents - including the American Acryl 9 December explosion in Seabrook, Texas - because allocated 2009 budget money had mostly run dry, said CSB chairman John Bresland.

In recent years, the Washington, DC-based CSB received funds for a second office in Denver, which has now opened and will primarily focus on incidents in the western US.

Bresland said the CSB also has interest in opening a Texas office - likely Houston - to be closer to the nation’s petrochemical hub. But whether that becomes a reality depends on budget appropriations from Congress.

“People within the oil industry have told us that we give the best value for taxpayer dollar of any agency in the government,” Bresland said. “$10m (€7m) is what we spend, but in terms of accident prevention, that money is returned many times over.”

For 2010, that budget is likely to be similar to 2009, which could leave the CSB stretched thin. Any increase would either come as a supplemental increase at some point during the year, or more than likely for the 2011 budget, which the CSB probably wouldn’t see until late next year, Bresland said.

“We operate on the previous year’s budget until we actually get the money from Congress,” he said.

So for now, the CSB’s priorities are shaped and somewhat limited in scope to a few target areas.

One such area remains the 2009 investigation of Bayer CropScience and resulting legislation aimed at stopping chemical companies from inappropriately using sensitive security information (SSI) labels to impede safety probes.

But going forward, the question lingers as to whether the legislation will have its intended effect.

In December, a CSB report on a Citgo fire in Corpus Christi, Texas, said that Citgo attempted to use the sensitive security information tag to prevent the release of surveillance footage of the fire.

However, the CSB received affirmation from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that the video did not meet those qualifications. The CSB said it found Citgo’s efforts “disturbing and contrary to the intent” of the law.

“Maybe in this case, they weren’t aware of the legislation,” Bresland speculated. “But they’re a big company; they need to be knowledgeable.

“We hope that companies as time goes on will be much more aware of this legislation, and not be tempted to use SSI as an excuse for not giving us essential information,” he added.

In addition to the SSI issue, the fire also caused concern over the potential release of hydrogen fluoride into the surrounding community.

Incidents such as that, and particularly the Silver Eagle Refining fire and explosion in Woods Cross, Utah, call into question the logic of building residential communities particularly close to refineries, Bresland said.

“I think there are a lot of implications for facility siting in these cases,” Bresland said. “Just how close should a residential or commercial community be to refineries or chemical plants? That’s something we’re going to have to look at the future and see if there are recommendations we could or should make.”

The CSB does not have the authority to implement legal sanctions, but regularly advises US government policymakers.

Another priority for the agency is fires at gasoline storage facilities, such as the spilled gasoline that vaporised and caused a late October fire and blast that destroyed more than 10 petroleum storage tanks owned by Caribbean Petroleum in Puerto Rico.

That was the third of three very similar incidents in the past few years, Bresland said.

“There is a factor at play that appears puzzling to experts in this area,” Bresland said. “If you get a tank that overflows with gasoline, normally you would expect a fire, but in all three cases, there was a significant explosion that did considerable off-site damage.

“We are working with investigators to see what commonality is there,” he added.

Bresland said that issue also ties into the debate on whether residential communities should be built so closely to refineries and other chemical facilities.

In each of those areas, the CSB said has received “very good feedback” for its work, Bresland said. What remains to be seen is whether a Congress embroiled in debate over health care reform has had the time to notice.

($1 = €0.70)

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By: Ben DuBose
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