In all, the board lists 15 pending investigations that involved the deaths of 27 workers and one member of the public.
"Closing its backlog would allow the CSB to provide to the community and other stakeholders its findings and recommendations, which would help reduce the occurrence of similar incidents and results in the protection of human health and the environment," said the 43-page IG report issued July 31. "Closure would also provide more time for investigative management to focus on recent and new incidents."
Daniel Horowitz, the board's managing director, said the agency's actual count of unfinished investigations is likely much higher. Over the years, accident investigations were dropped for a variety of reasons, ranging from workload to missing evidence to legal challenges that delayed fieldwork. And it's impossible to predict the timing or scope of industrial accidents that can quickly shift agency priorities.
"It's been a consistent part of the process," Horowitz said. "There's such a large amount of unpredictability in the work. You have to balance the workload."
The IG report complained that the board has not identified a specific period of time for completing investigations, but also noted that teams are often interrupted during a probe to be deployed to another -- often at the request of Congress or "other external stakeholders" -- adding to delays.
Government auditors have in the past also criticized the board for not doing more to spell out how it would prioritize which accidents the agency will -- and won't -- investigate.
In West Virginia, the CSB has been praised by citizen groups and some elected officials for its detailed reports on the Bayer explosion in 2008, the DuPont incidents in January 2010, and a 2008 propane explosion that killed four people at a Raleigh County convenience store.
But among the investigations the CSB has never completed is a probe of a December 2010 explosion and fire at AL Solutions, a small metals recycling plant in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle. Two brothers, Jeffrey Scott Fish and James Eugene Fish, and a third worker, Steven Swain, were killed in the incident along the Ohio River in New Cumberland, Hancock County.
Last week, CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen told the Gazette-Mail that the team working on the AL Solutions probe is now assigned full-time duty investigating the April fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
"Obviously, this is a very time- and resource-intensive investigation and the team has not been able to work on AL Solutions," Cohen said in an email message. "We have not dropped the case, but I don't have an answer to give you regarding the completion."
Horowitz traces much of the board's backlog problem to taking on the Deepwater Horizon investigation, a massive and complex probe where the board has faced legal challenges questioning its very authority to get involved in the first place. Board members asked Congress for an additional $5.6 million for Deepwater Horizon alone. But the CSB lost even the additional $2 million promised by the Senate when lawmakers opted to fund 2011 government operations through a series of continuing resolutions, rather than an actual budget bill.
In a prepared response to the IG audit, the CSB's official position was to insist the agency's productivity has not declined.
"Operating within the constraints of static or reduced budget, the CSB nonetheless believes that the investigation reports that have been issued in the past five years constitute some of the most important work the agency has done," the board said.
But in a budget request report to Congress, the board offered a more straightforward explanation of the situation the agency faces.
"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," the budget request said. "The CSB continually tracks and monitors high consequence chemical incidents that result in deaths, hospitalizations, property damage in excess of $500,000, large evacuations, and/or off-site damage. CSB staff recorded an estimated 282 incidents in 2011 and 334 incidents in 2012."
Board members asked for nearly $11.5 million for the new budget year that starts Oct. 1. That's an increase of about $1 million over the current year, which was cut along with other federal spending by the budget sequestration.
"The CSB must maintain its current level of operations or risk an increased backlog and the inability to take on emerging safety concerns throughout the industry," the board said in its request.
And during a Senate hearing in June, board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso warned lawmakers, "the CSB has no capacity beyond this point to undertake any new investigative work, beyond what has already been promised and begun."
Currently, the Democrat-controlled Senate is proposing to meet the CSB's request. The Republican-controlled House wants to give the agency $8.96 million.
In West, Texas, the CSB has been hampered by a problem that has come up repeatedly in the past: Other agencies, including the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office refused the board access to the accident site and to key witnesses.
On Aug. 1, President Obama issued an executive order that created a new "working group" of various agencies to examine a variety of chemical plant safety issues. Among other things, the group is charged with examining interactions between the CSB and other agencies, to try to clear up these sorts of problems.
Moure-Eraso praised the president's action, saying, "increased coordination, communication, and data collection amongst federal, state, tribal and local agencies should result in action and assist community members and emergency responders in helping to prevent and respond to chemical incidents."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.