INSIGHT: US Chem Safety Board begins two-year BP inquiry

30 September 2010 16:41  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

CSB to look at causes not consequences of BP rig blastWASHINGTON (ICIS)--The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said this week that it might take up to two years and several million dollars in additional funding to complete its investigation of the explosion and fire that destroyed the BP Deepwater Horizon rig.

The board’s top executives also dismissed concerns expressed by some in industry that the CSB was over-reaching and exceeding its chemical accidents mandate by investigating an oil rig explosion.

Some industry officials earlier expressed concern that in taking on an investigation of the BP rig disaster, the board would be spreading its limited financial and staffing resources too thin, leaving more mainstream chemical sector accidents uncovered.

Indeed, the former chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, John Bresland, told Congress in June this year that the board’s inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon accident would command so much of the board’s staff and finances that smaller investigations would have to be shut down, with others rushed to conclusion and some postponed indefinitely.

Bresland, who stepped down as chairman on 24 June but continues as a board member, also told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that the investigative agency would have to dip into its $847,000 (€626,780) emergency fund to launch the BP inquiry and would need considerably more money from Congress to finish the job.

That committee had specifically asked the CSB to investigate the BP accident, in part because the board and its investigative team had developed a close understanding of BP’s corporate culture and safety issues during a two-year inquiry into the March 2005 fatal explosion and fire at the company’s Texas City, Texas, refinery.

But Daniel Horowitz, the board’s managing director, said this week that the operational compromises first anticipated by the agency have not been necessary.

“We have not terminated any cases,” Horowitz said.

“We have shifted some personnel, and we wrapped up our Kleen Energy investigation and brought the ConAgra and Xcel Energy investigations to rapid and satisfactory conclusions, but we have not dropped any cases,” he said.

He said CSB has assigned ten investigators to the BP inquiry and also has three attorneys working on the case, with much of the work already under way through the board’s recently established six-person branch office in Denver, Colorado.

Horowitz said the board already has informed Congressman Henry Waxman (Democrat-California), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that CSB will need “several million dollars” in additional funding related to the BP investigation.

That funding would be on top of the $2m expansion for the board’s fiscal year 2011 budget, which would bring CSB’s general operating authorisation to just over $13m for next year, once Congress gets around to completing past-due appropriations bills.

Horowitz also noted that the board has had talks with key members of Congress about the need for a supplemental budget increase to fund additional staff and a new branch office that CSB hopes to open in Houston, Texas, in 2011.

The board has had plans to open a regional office in Houston - the hub of the US petrochemicals industry - since 2008, but the money hasn’t been available.

The need to staff-up for the BP investigation may help convince Congress of the need to fund the board’s Houston shop, Horowitz said.

“The board has for years stated its view that the agency should have more resources,” Horowitz said.  “We really haven’t been provided the resources needed to meet the board’s full mandate.”

Bill Allmond, vice president for government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA), shares the CSB’s concerns about funding.

“Congress each year undermines the board’s enormous mandate by providing it with only modest resources,” Allmond said.

“If Congress expects the CSB to undertake years-long investigations of major accidents such as the BP explosion,” Allmond said, “it needs to be realistic about the agency’s funding, such that small investigations, which can be just as important, are not compromised by congressional requests.”

Rafael Moure-Eraso, newly appointed by President Barack Obama as CSB chairman, said that even with the massive undertaking required for the BP inquiry, “there will be no degradation of our other work”.

Moure-Eraso also dismissed allegations that the CSB was stepping beyond its original congressional mandate in taking on the BP case.

“This is a big undertaking,” he said of the board’s Deepwater Horizon inquiry, “but in my view it is no different than any big chemical explosion anywhere in the US that would require a similar commitment of a lot of our resources.”

“This accident has tremendous implications for the US in terms of the loss of lives, the environmental damage,” he said. “On the basis of our charter, we have to investigate it, we have to get involved - this is what we do,” he added.

Moure-Eraso emphasised that CSB is not investigating the oil spill that resulted from the Deepwater Horizon accident.

“We are investigating the chemical explosion of natural gas that was being produced at the rig,” he said. “For some reason, the gas escaped, caused an explosion and killed 11 workers, and that triggers our coverage.”

The CSB charter, part of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, directs the agency to investigate any chemical accident that results in a fatality, serious injuries or substantial property damage.

“We’re not looking at the end of the process, the environmental impact. Others are doing that,” Moure-Eraso noted. “We are looking at the front end, what was the beginning of the accident, what caused it.”

“Of course we are having to shift and balance our resources” to conduct the BP investigation, he added. “But we have high standards of what an investigation should be, and we are going to maintain those standards in all of our investigations.”

He said that CSB investigators soon will travel to Louisiana to examine the blow-out preventer (BOP) that failed to confine the deep sea oil well when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank. 

He said the board also is interviewing BP personnel and other witnesses and has subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of documents from BP and the service companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon’s operations.

Moure-Eraso said that the fact that the Deepwater Horizon sank and is not available to CSB investigators does not pose an unusual problem.

“It is often the case in chemical accidents that there is nothing there except a hole in the ground,” he said.  This is no different.”

($1 = €0.74)

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Joe Kamalick
+1 713 525 2653

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.

Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.

Printer Friendly

Get access to breaking chemical news as it happens.
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX)
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX). Download the free tabular data and a chart of the historical index

Related Articles