by Bill Hoyle

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has declined so far to investigate the December 4th fatal explosion at the Valero oil refinery in Texas City, Texas.  Like OSHA, the CSB is spread thin due to underfunding and understaffing.   CSB further argues, however, that they do not plan to investigate because Valero claims that there was no release of hazardous material. 

CSB’s apparent belief that there must be an actual release of hazardous material in order to investigate an incident is contrary to OSHA’s application of the PSM standard. The mission of OSHA PSM, EPA RMP and the CSB are all described in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.  OSHA has determined that steam and nitrogen are covered by PSM when a failure of these systems could in turn result in a release of highly hazardous material.  In oil refineries, steam is critical to the safe operation of highly hazardous process units.  Whether or not there actually has been a release of highly hazardous material should not be a reason to forgo a CSB investigation.

The key question is whether or not there is a potential for a steam failure to cause a release of a hazardous substance. This is the well-reasoned position of OSHA on PSM coverage of steam, nitrogen and other utility systems, in response to an inquiry from Mr. Howard J. Feldmam of the American Petroleum Institute (API).  The narrowing of OSHA PSM coverage, which is urged by API,  does not benefit the prevention mission of the CSB.  Whereas the goal of the CSB is prevention, it is vital that the CSB have no less scope than OSHA PSM for selecting investigations.  Furthermore, CSB’s authority to investigate is not limited to substances listed in OSHA or EPA regulations. 

For eleven years, CSB has included nitrogen-related fatalities in their investigation selection and received praise for doing so.  Steam system failures such as the fatal boiler explosion at OSHA PSM-covered Valero should be treated in the same way by CSB.

Bill Hoyle was Investigations Manager for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board until his retirement in 2008.  Prior to joining the CSB, he was a 15-year member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.