CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When a series of leaks at the DuPont Co. plant in Belle left one worker dead in January 2010, local political leaders pushed for an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Agency investigators already were looking into a fatal explosion two years earlier at the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., publicly pressed for the board to deploy a team to DuPont also.
CSB officials agreed, but board member William E. Wright warned at the time that the DuPont probe would delay efforts to complete other investigations, including the one at Bayer. At the time, the CSB had 17 open investigations, the largest number in agency history.
Within months, the workload would get even worse. CSB deployed when seven workers died April 2, 2010, at the Tesoro Refinery explosion in Anacortes, Wash.
Weeks later, again under pressure from Congress, the board launched a probe of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout that killed 11 workers and caused a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Since then, a tragic list of other industrial disasters and near-disasters has been added to the board's docket: an ammonia leak at an Alabama warehouse and distribution center that sent 130 residents to the hospital; a California refinery fire that prompted 15,000 plant neighbors to seek medical attention; the massive explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant that killed 15 people, injured hundreds, and flattened part of the town; and a Louisiana plastics plant explosion that killed two workers.
Today, the board is under fire for a backlog of unfinished investigations. The agency's Inspector General wrote a tough report alleging mismanagement. Lawmakers questioned why investigations of workplace accidents in their own districts drag on uncompleted.
Longtime advocates for improved safety and environmental protections at the nation's chemical plants and other industrial facilities, including some who have closely watched the board for years, say the CSB's problems are really just a symptom of broader troubles and misplaced national priorities -- of frequent indifference to worker safety and public health issues by the political system.
The board remains a tiny federal agency, with just 43 employees and an annual budget of only $10.5 million. Promised increases in funding aimed at helping with the massive Deepwater Horizon probe and adding a fourth investigation team never materialized.
"The CSB's leadership, past and present, has to take some responsibility for biting off more than it can chew in adding more investigations to its platter, but its motives for doing so are noble," said Celeste Monforton, a public health researcher, worker safety activist, and former Labor Department staffer. "It is the only federal agency charged with making recommendations to help prevent worker fatalities and injuries, and its size reflects larger disinterest in worker health and safety problems."
Indeed, the board's budget has remained relatively flat over the last five years. The Obama administration has never asked for any significant new money to help -- let alone expand -- the agency. The five-member board remains two members short, with one Obama nomination still awaiting Senate confirmation and another slot not yet filled by the White House.
"We'd like for the CSB to do more in the way of investigative capacity and also recommendations for improving things," said Rick Hind, who follows chemical plant safety issues for Greenpeace. "But I find it hard to bash too hard on them as an agency. They've had to basically triage which accidents they will investigate."
Modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, the CSB has no real regulatory authority. It doesn't write safety rules, issue citations or levy fines. Instead, board officials investigate industrial accidents and make recommendations to industry and government for making plants safer for workers and nearby residents.
Early legislative proposals called for the CSB to have an annual budget of about $12 million, about half of NTSB yearly spending at the time. Now, lawmakers give the CSB just one-tenth of what is appropriated every year for the NTSB. And while Congress created the chemical board as part of the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, inaction on appointments and budget appropriations delayed its becoming operational until 1998.
As a result, the board has over the last 15 years been periodically criticized by government auditors, labor organizations and environmental groups, usually not so much for what it does, but for what it doesn't do.
For example, the CSB has not used its legal authority to write regulations to set up a new system to require chemical accidents to be reported to the board. And the board has never come close to fulfilling its legal mandate to investigate and report on "any accidental [chemical] release resulting in a fatality, serious injury or substantial property damages."
In both instances, the board has cited the staffing constraints caused by limited congressional financial support.
"The board feels the agency has responded to its understanding of current congressional intent and has utilized the limited resources available for its mission," the CSB said in response to a 2004 Inspector General's audit.
Last month, a new IG report harshly criticized management of the board, noting especially that the agency "has steadily fallen behind in accomplishing its objective related to timeliness" of its investigations.
In 2007, the board completed 10 accident investigations, which was its goal for that year. Last year, the agency finished just two probes, compared to its goal of eight investigations for the year.
The IG report, which covered data through May 2013, listed six unfinished investigations that have been open more than three years. It did not include Deepwater Horizon, the Tesoro Refinery, or the uncompleted investigation of a July 2010 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Horsehead Holding Co. zinc recycling facility in Monaca, Pa.