This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, May 2017.
What could you do with $11 million? If you were Vanessa Sutherland, chairperson and CEO of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), you could run your 43-person agency for a year. But if the cuts included in the president’s budget request are enacted, she won’t even get the chance. Ironically, the “America First: Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” is said to “reprioritize Federal spending so that it advances the safety and security of the American people. … A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity.” Nevertheless, the blueprint proposes to eliminate the CSB, which accounts for less than 0.0003% of the nation’s $3.8 trillion budget.
Congress established the CSB under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 as an independent, nonregulatory agency modeled after the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Its charge is to investigate accidents to determine the conditions and circumstances that led up to the event and to identify the cause or causes so that similar events might be prevented. Unlike regulatory agencies, which focus on compliance, violations, enforcement, and fines, the CSB’s focus is on identifying root causes and contributing causes, and sharing lessons learned. Some companies, particularly smaller and medium-sized firms, may lack the in-house expertise to self-investigate. Those that have experienced a process safety incident may be reluctant to open up to regulators and enforcement agents, often providing only the minimum information required by law, which may not point to underlying causes. And, concerns about liability may inhibit willingness to share lessons learned.
The CSB has admittedly exhibited uneven performance, but it has improved markedly in recent years. It has investigated more than 130 major chemical incidents and issued 788 safety recommendations — 78% of which have been acted on and closed. It has produced 68 educational videos — available free on its website and on YouTube — that have been viewed more than 6.4 million times. Its reports, recommendations, bulletins, and videos are routinely used and cited in training by industry, academia, professional associations, first responders, labor, and community leaders. AIChE Academy and the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) use them in courses and in the Safety and Chemical Engineering Education (SACHE) program (see “Process Safety — Start Them Young,” p. 53).
The CSB’s materials are invaluable. Kevin Modica, a sophomore who attended a recent CCPS Process Safety Boot Camp at the Univ. of Delaware, wrote to the instructors: “Thank you for your instructive and useful introduction to an important aspect of industry: process safety. The Process Safety Boot Camp was extremely informative, but the CSB videos in particular drove the point home. Through the videos, I was able to gain an appreciation for the material discussed in lecture. Without those video reviews of past accidents, I would have had great difficulty connecting the theory that we discussed with their application in the real world. Video reviews of past disasters gave me a visualization of how a hazard can turn into a tragedy within minutes. By the use of materials from the CSB, I have gained an understanding of the importance of process safety. Through this, I believe I have become a more safety-aware student, and I will become a safer chemical engineer. This vital aspect of learning cannot be replicated without the experts in the CSB. The material created by the Chemical Safety Board creates an important safety culture that is a vital step toward protecting workers, the public, and the environment.”
Dollars and cents
Let’s look at the potential return on that $11 million/yr investment. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent as a result of chemical disasters in the U.S. Consider these high-profile incidents mentioned in the CBS’s business case for safety:
- The Apr. 17, 2013, explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility in West, TX — total insurance losses were estimated to be $230 million (the company was insured for only $1 million) and federal disaster assistance exceeded $16 million.
- The Apr. 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon/Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico — the rig operator paid an estimated $13 billion worth of economic and medical claims as part of an uncapped settlement, and an additional $20 billion settlement for federal, state, and local government economic and environmental claims; settlements involving other companies had reached $1.24 billion at the time of the completion of the CSB’s investigation.
- The Mar. 23, 2005, explosion at the BP Texas City, TX, refinery — financial losses exceeded $1.5 billion.
The CSB’s business case concludes: “To make the safety of Americans our number one priority, it is critical that chemical safety lessons are learned and shared among diverse stakeholders across industries. If the CSB’s many safety lessons prevented at least one catastrophic incident, the money saved by preventing damage to the facility and surrounding community, avoiding legal settlements, and saving human lives far outweighs the agency’s $11 million annual budget. Safety and prosperity are compatible. Strong safety programs are critical for the economic success of the chemical and petrochemical industries. The CSB’s continued collaboration with industry, regulators, standards setting bodies, and other professional organizations proves that the CSB has a vital role in driving critical chemical safety change in the United States.”
The Executive Directors of AIChE, CCPS, and the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M Univ. have sent letters to the House and Senate appropriations committees and other relevant committees and subcommittees, urging them to support the CSB’s critical mission. Add your voice to the conversation by writing to your representatives. You can find their names and addresses at www.senate.gov/senators/contact and www.house.gov/representatives/find. Explain the value of the CSB and the positive impacts its work has had and can continue to have with a modest investment of just $11 million/yr. That’s less than three ten-thousandths of one percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget.
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