"We're on the job," said Moure-Eraso, even amid the political commotion. "We are committed to continue doing our reports and make recommendations that are going to prevent explosions and prevent people from dying."
The backlog existed at the start of Moure-Eraso's term in 2010 and the pileup began under the chairmanship of Carolyn Merritt and interim Chairman John Bresland. According to CSB management, there were 22 unfinished cases at the start of his term, compared with just 11 now.
Moure-Eraso has explained the backlog as the result of a budget shortage and a small staff. And while that may be true — CSB's fiscal 2014 budget was roughly $11 million and it has around 40 employees — the budget and staff were also small in previous years when investigations were cleared in a year or two.
In fact, there's little appreciable difference in the board's budget and staff compared with the high-water mark of 2007, when 11 investigations were completed (including, at the time, the CSB's longest). There were 17 investigators on staff that year, compared with 19 in 2013, and the budget today is roughly $2 million higher. Aside from a dip between 2006 and 2011, the investigative staff has in fact grown.
So what's changed? There are more — and more complex — investigations going on, highlighted by the CSB's controversial entry into the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf (typically CSB wouldn't deal with offshore incidents, but ventured in after a congressional request).
It's that report, Moure-Eraso said, that demonstrates what CSB is doing well and why its investigations must take so long. The first two volumes of the report approved in June, he said, were the only ones to use a full set of testing data to determine why the rig's blowout preventer failed and develop solid recommendations on how to prevent similar incidents. It's part of a "substantial evolution" in how CSB works, moving from industry consultations to policy matters that take a bigger bite.
"We've learned to look at the root causes, we have to look at process safety management, rather than just the engineering lapses that we found," Moure-Eraso said. "We have to look at policy issues and we have gotten very good at this "¦ I believe we are being an agent of change."
For example, he said, a report released last week on an explosion at AL Solutions metal-recycling plant in West Virginia included recommendations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on how to address combustible dust, an issue CSB has made a priority in recent years. A 2013 report on an explosion at a fireworks-disposal operation in Hawaii included first-ever recommendations on safety conditions for federal contractors.
MANGLED MANAGEMENT PLANS
Sources inside and outside CSB questioned how much more substantial the reports were, adding that the delays render some of the impact moot. That explanation, they say, is a spin from a management team looking to shield itself from well-deserved blame for leading the agency astray as political pressure looms.