A placid announcement from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that it's heading to West, Texas, to investigate the massive fertilizer plant explosion shouldn't be remarkable. But it is. Such deployments are rare. Critics of the agency — which is tasked with investigating such accidents — charge that it's mismanaged and prioritizes the wrong investigations. The agency blames someone else, if indirectly: BP.
For the past two years, the Chemical Safety Board's budget requests have argued that its lengthy investigation into the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill is sapping its ability to respond to other incidents. In its 2013 budget request, a document sent to Congress in February 2012 to make the case for its federal budget allocation this year, the CSB wrote that "the burden of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon investigation and a backlog of old cases has further hampered the CSB's ability to initiate new investigations." In its 2014 request, released in January, the agency makes a similar argument:
In recent years, serious resource constraints have created a backlog of open major accident investigations and prevented the CSB from investigating more than a small percentage of the most serious incidents each year.
CSB staff recorded an estimated 282 incidents in 2011 and 334 incidents in 2012. However, the burden of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon investigation and a backlog of old cases have further hampered the CSB's ability to initiate new investigations.
The Center for Public Integrity, which yesterday — with remarkable timing, just 15 hours before the Texas explosion — released the results of an investigation into the CSB, would agree that Deepwater was a resource drain. But according to Jim Morris, one of the report's authors, many would suggest it's a problem of the CSB's own making. "Some of their own board members," he noted when we spoke with him earlier today, "were skeptical that the CSB could add anything to what's come out [from other agencies]. And yet its cost almost $4 million for a board that doesn't have a lot of money or people."