Chemical Safety

Beth Rosenberg’s sorry tale related in “Seventeen Months on the Chemical Safety Board” (Issues, Summer 2016) raises a lot of questions about how society regulates potentially dangerous industries, what it means to believe in a democratic process, and the impact of politics and power in regulatory and investigative agencies of government. At one level, this is a tale all too familiar: a plant blows up, people are killed and hurt, investigations are done, fingers are pointed, explanations are given. There are calls for reform—do this and it won’t happen again, adopt these protocols and we can lessen the likelihood of mayhem. At the very least, we might expect the best from the experts. In the case recounted by Rosenberg, things didn’t happen the way they should.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has a professional staff and a mandate to investigate incidents and disasters in the petrochemical industry—a whole slew of chemists, public health professionals, engineers, and safety specialists who work under the direction of the board, which comprises presidentially appointed and representative members. What could possibly go wrong? As Rosenberg points out in this case: a lot. The CSB can only recommend, enforcement agencies (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency) have way too few inspectors, punishments and fines are often symbolic or puny, and the industry is critical to the economy and politically powerful. Even given this, the initial response by the CSB to the Chevron explosion at the heart of Rosenberg’s tale was wrong and wrongheaded. Why? Because something was rotten at the CSB. Its advocacy of the “safety case” as a solution to the problems confronting the aging plants and poor management in petrochemicals paid little attention to the true causes of the problem and effectively ignored calls for greater oversight or community input. Despite the objections by Rosenberg and others to this approach, this is what the CSB initially proposed. Changing that hit all manner of obstacles.

Society needs to pay more attention to the politics of organizations within federal agencies. These issues deserve renewed study.

For years, the literature of regulatory agencies has stressed that such agencies end up being captured by the constituents they are supposed to regulate. Companies get to be pals of the regulators; understandings are arrived at; regulations and protections for workers, consumers, and the public are weakened. But at the CSB something else was going on. The CSB became captured by its own culture and interests, the staff (particularly senior staff) more dedicated to maintaining their jobs and reputations than doing the right thing, and the continued existence of the CSB was more important than truth or action. It was compounded by a failure of leadership, lack of democracy at the uppermost level of the board, and political maneuvering that ensured critical voices were silenced.

The lesson? Society needs to pay more attention to the politics of organizations within federal agencies. These issues deserve renewed study. We need a better understanding of what the political scientist Graham Allison has called bureaucratic politics—that is, how cultures develop in agencies, what values are promoted (or not), how where you sit becomes more important than where you stand.

If the nation wants to have safer industries and to protect workers and communities, we need good regulations, strongly enforced. Of course, this means the support of Congress—bigger budgets for more inspectors, and fines and punishments for transgressions that actually hurt. It needs open discussion involving workers and the community and creative approaches to understanding all aspects of what leads to explosions, fires, and disasters.

But what this tale of the CSB also shows is that we should turn our attention to the politics of bureaucracy and the way power and culture develop in places such as the CSB. We need to understand how agencies can capture themselves. This is more than calling for greater public accountability; it is, as Rosenberg notes, a call for a staff culture that puts public service before private interest, leadership that is committed to fairness and integrity, and training and more training to ensure that scientists and professionals understand their public responsibility.

Professor, Department of Political Science

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

I work in the chemical manufacturing industry. Our companies manage a great deal of risk in the production of the goods we sell. External checks and inputs on our operations in the interest of public safety and health are necessities of doing business. Nevertheless, an adversarial tension will always exist in the relationships between the industry and regulatory agencies. Thus, it is vitally important that all stakeholders view as unimpeachably objective any independent government body that is charged with investigating and analyzing the root causes of significant petrochemical accidents and making recommendations for future prevention to not only regulators, but also to industry, unions, state, and local governments. In this, the CSB faces problems.

Compared with the National Transportation Safety Board, the CSB has struggled throughout its relatively short history to achieve the same degree of credibility. It has never been adequately funded. And it has rarely been able to get along with itself. Internal conflicts and disagreements between board members and chairs date back to 2000 when, to settle an internal power dispute, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had to issue a ruling (known as the “Moss Opinion”) clarifying the roles, responsibilities, and boundaries between the chair and the members of the board. Thirteen years later, the CSB found itself going back down the path of poor leadership and management dysfunction, as Rosenberg clearly describes.

The problem with political appointments is that they are, well, political. Rosenberg calls for a more effective process for identifying and vetting leaders and preparing new board members for their roles. This is much needed reform, but a crapshoot to implement when ideology is allowed to trump knowledge and leadership experience in the public servant selection process. The nation got lucky with Rosenberg, who demonstrated integrity, courage, and personal sacrifice for public service at a time when it was greatly needed.

Butler, Pennsylvania

The nation has too often seen the toll that explosions, leaks, and other accidents within the petrochemical industry have taken on the health, safety, and livelihoods of workers, first responders, neighboring communities, and, at times, the industry itself. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 150 catastrophic accidents occur each year in regulated industrial facilities. Less severe accidents occur regularly; in just the little more than two years between April 2013, with the explosion at a West Texas fertilizer facility that killed 15 people, and August 2015, 425 chemical accidents were reported to the EPA. Others likely went unreported.

As Rosenberg eloquently points out, this may go well beyond a technical issue and reach to a failure of or flaw in the facility’s management structures, practices, and communications.

Rosenberg has provided an accessible, candid, and thoughtful chronicle of her service at the CSB, a small but important arm of the government’s efforts to protect people working in and living near petrochemical facilities. She efficiently summarizes the context, systems, and landscape in which the CSB—and other health and safety organizations—operate.

As a government body with no regulatory authority, the CSB has the mission and authority to investigate root causes of accidents in the petrochemical industry and make evidence-based recommendations to the full range of stakeholders that are in a position to take some action that might prevent similar situations in the future. “Root cause” is the important operative phrase here. As Rosenberg eloquently points out, this may go well beyond a technical issue and reach to a failure of or flaw in the facility’s management structures, practices, and communications.

Given the size of the petrochemical industry, its workforce, geographic spread, and the sheer potential for significant harm, the CSB has a challenging enough job, given its small budget and staff. It may be an agency that is under the radar screen for most people, but it has unique reach and deserves broad support.

The immense rewards of public service, along with its many challenges, are well known to people who have dedicated their time and talent to working on behalf of the public interest within government agencies. Rosenberg highlights her experience with internal politics, staff and board relationships, and a work environment that she believes hampered her effectiveness and the effectiveness of the agency to fulfill its mission. But her commentary offers more than an inside look at the challenges she and others faced at the CSB. She offers insights and suggestions that cannot only enhance the functioning of the CSB, but help to better prepare the scientists entering public service at the federal agencies whom we rely on to protect our health, safety, and environment.

Executive Director, Union of Concerned Scientists

Former Acting Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Cite this Article

“Chemical Safety.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 1 (Fall 2016).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Fall 2016