Chemical-Board Probe Delays May Harm U.S. Prevention Role

Probes of incidents such as fires and explosions at plants and refineries by federal officials take too long, putting the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s mission to prevent accidents at risk, a U.S. government watchdog said.

The agency, an independent panel that examines such accidents and issues recommendations for companies and regulators, has a case backlog “without documented plans for resolution,” according to a report released yesterday by the agency’s inspector general.

“By completing more timely investigations, CSB can better fulfill its mission” and “help reduce the occurrence of similar incidents,” said the report by the Office of Inspector General for the Environmental Protection Agency, which acts as the watchdog for the three-member chemical board.

The safety of chemical plants, refineries and fertilizer factories has become a priority in Washington following several deadly mishaps, including the April fire and explosion at a fertilizer depot in West, Texas, that killed 14 people.

The board examines industrial accidents and recommends preventive steps for regulators, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Labor Department, as well as companies, states and local authorities. The Washington-based agency lacks the authority to force regulators or companies to make recommended changes.

While the board agrees that “it is desirable to complete reports more quickly,” in a response to the report it said the watchdog “has largely missed the mark in its analysis, overlooking the significant impact of resource constraints and demands from Congress and other stakeholders for large-scale investigations,” like that of the 2010 BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The continuing Deepwater Horizon investigation is the “largest and most comprehensive ever” by the board, it said.