For the second time this year, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) finds itself in a spat with another government agency about the ability to perform its mission.
This time, it’s up against the EPA.
The massive fire at the Chevron refinery 10 miles northeast of San Francisco, CA, on Aug. 6, 2012, is at the center of the tiff. The fire sent clouds of gas and black smoke over nearby residential neighborhoods. In the weeks that followed, 15,000 people went to hospitals with breathing problems. Chevron has paid $10 million to settle claims in connection with the fire. Cal/OSHA has issued $963,200 in fines to Chevron, the highest penalty in safety agency’s history.
According to reporting by the Associated Press, the EPA wants information contained in 119 interviews conducted by the CSB. The EPA wants the information for its criminal investigation in the Chevron case. The CSB conducted the interviews to determine the exact cause of the fire and to recommend ways to prevent a similar event from happening.
The environmental agency has even gone so far as to get grand jury subpoenas to obtain the interviews.
Why doesn’t the CSB want to turn them over? The board relies on cooperation from industry workers to gather information for its investigations.
Who would want to talk to the CSB, particularly if there was the chance of incriminating your company … or even yourself? CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso says turning over the documents would have “a devastating effect” on the agency’s work.
Moure-Eraso says the board is working with the Justice Department to figure out how to share information in the transcripts without compromising witness identities.
Blocked by criminal investigators
Earlier this year we told you about the turf war being waged between the CSB and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office regarding the fatal explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant in April. The CSB says the other two agencies were destroying evidence it needed to determine the cause of the blast that killed 14 people, injured 200 and leveled hundreds of structures.
Believe it or not, the CSB had a memo of understanding with the ATF regarding just this sort of thing. Looks like it didn’t help.
It’s kind of a shame the CSB has trouble performing its job.
Just as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates the largest transportation mishaps, the CSB does the same with incidents involving chemical handling. Like the NTSB, the CSB has no power to fine anyone or issue new regulations based on its investigations.
When you stop and think about it, the CSB is uniquely positioned to “do good” when it comes to workplace safety. Its mission is much the same as that of a safety manager at a facility where a worker has suffered a serious injury: It wants to find out what happened and keep it from happening again.
This comparison holds up particularly well if the safety manager doesn’t have the authority to punish the workers involved in the incident. When the safety manager is completely devoted to finding out what went wrong and has nothing to do with disciplining workers, those involved in an incident will be more likely to put their trust in the safety manager and speak openly about what happened.
Not to say employees should never be disciplined for a safety lapse. Just let the employees’ direct manager and HR take care of it instead of the safety manager.
And just as managers, HR and Safety all have to figure out how to get their jobs done in a workplace, regulatory agencies with the power to issue penalties and purely investigatory groups need to figure out how to co-exist within the federal government.
The CSB is too valuable a resource to waste. Let’s hope it’s allowed to do its job and that actions by regulatory/penalizing agencies won’t compromise its usefulness.
What do you think about this situation? Let us know in the comments below.