In the months following a deadly refinery explosion in Anacortes, Washington, in April 2010, federal investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were ready to issue urgent safety recommendations. But management at the agency blocked the release of their urgent alert.
It then took the Chemical Safety Board another three and a half years to issue recommendations for making the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes safer.
Those are some of the scathing conclusions of a Congressional inquiry into mismanagement at the Chemical Safety Board.
The independent board investigates explosions and other chemical accidents and is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Chemical Safety Board issued its report in May on the Tesoro blast in Anacortes, four years after the explosion killed seven.
The investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology found:
- A “toxic and abusive” workplace that led to an exodus of the agency’s skilled investigators.
- Retaliation against whistleblowers.
- Chemical Safety Board Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso’s use of personal email accounts for official business.
- Moure-Eraso’s refusal to release documents to an inspector general investigating agency mismanagement.
At an oversight committee hearing on Thursday, Moure-Eraso received a bipartisan drubbing.
“Investigations have languished for years, and several employees disclosed to us that they feared retaliation from agency management for cooperating with the committee’s investigation,” said committee chair Rep. Darrel Issa (R-California).
“It is clear there are serious management problems that need to be addressed,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said. Speaking directly to Moure-Eraso, he added, “I’ve got to tell you, the fingers are pointing at you, my brother.”
Moure-Eraso said the Chemical Safety Board’s budget was too small to respond to the number of industrial accidents in the U.S. each year.
“Part of the problem with the languishing investigations is we really have a window of opportunity, when we have an incident, to effect change, and that window of opportunity shrinks as time passes,” Rob Hall, former Chemical Safety Board investigator who ran the Anacortes investigation, told committee staff.
The Congressional inquiry found that Moure-Eraso and Chemical Safety Board managing director Daniel Horowitz blocked the recommendations from release in September 2010, even though they had already been peer-reviewed.
"Had the so-called urgent recommendation been issued in the form it was drafted, it could have been a serious disservice to the workers in this refinery and the other approximately 150 oil refineries around the country," Horowitz told KUOW in an email. Horowitz said the agency blocked the draft recommendations because of "serious questions" about their urgency and validity, including that they relied on metallurgical testing performed by Tesoro, rather than by independent experts.
Hall had aimed to have his recommendations published before Tesoro restarted its shuttered refinery in October 2010.
“Once you go beyond a year or two years, your ability to effect change is really limited,” Hall said.
“CSB’s habit of delaying the issuance of investigative reports during Moure-Eraso’s chairmanship has compromised public safety at factories and chemical plants,” the committees’ report concluded.
“The committee gave the head of the CSB a vote of no confidence,” Congressman Rick Larsen, a Democrat whose district includes Anacortes, told KUOW. “It might be really the time for the administration to reconstitute the entire board.”
Larsen said he is now drafting legislation to improve refinery safety based on the safety board’s belated recommendations.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz.