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Mar 22, 2007

Testifying before House Committee on Education and Labor, Chairman Carolyn W. Merritt Calls for Increasing Oversight of Refining Industry by OSHA

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Washington, DC, March 22, 2007 - Carolyn W. Merritt, Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), told a congressional committee today there should be increased oversight of the oil refining industry by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in order to prevent accidents such as the one that occurred at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, in 2005. She spoke before the House Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by U.S. Rep. George Miller of California who convened the hearing "to examine what we can learn from the missteps that preceded this disaster in order to help prevent future ones."

The Education and Labor Committee has posted on its website a full-length webcast of the hearing. Written testimony of all witnesses is available here.

Chairman Merritt said the CSB's exhaustive investigation into the BP accident, the results of which were released two days ago in Texas City, showed the company had not followed OSHA process safety regulations, and that OSHA had not adequately inspected the facility to see if BP was complying with those regulations. As a result, she said, cuts in training, staffing, maintenance, equipment modernization, and safety, which the investigation found were a result of significant budget cuts ordered by BP, left the Texas City facility vulnerable to catastrophe.

Ms. Merritt said, "The CSB found that regulatory oversight of this refinery was ineffective. In recent years, OSHA has focused its inspections on workplaces with high injury rates, but these rates do not predict the likelihood of a catastrophic process accident at a facility."

Ms. Merritt noted that the BP facility, like thousands of other petrochemical plants, is regulated under OSHA's Process Safety Management standard, issued in 1992. "Rigorous application and enforcement of this rule - including its preventative maintenance and incident investigation requirements - would almost certainly have prevented this tragedy," she said. She noted the BP refinery had a long history of deadly accidents and dangerous hydrocarbon releases from the same equipment that was involved in the Texas City accident.

The work of the CSB received bipartisan praise from committee members for the CSB's investigation of the BP tragedy and other accidents. Several expressed concern about the paucity of regulatory inspections in the petrochemical industry.

Chairman Miller said, "Protecting the safety of refinery and chemical workers is reason enough to get this right. But the safety of our refineries and chemical facilities also has broader implications for the communities surrounding these plants. The disaster at BP Texas testifies to the steep price we pay as Americans for not enforcing the nation's laws that are supposed to protect working men and women in this country." He said further hearings may be convened.

Following Chairman Merritt's testimony, other panelists addressed the committee, including Eva Rowe, who lost both parents in the explosion. They were among the 15 contract workers meeting in work trailers at the time of the blast. The CSB found the trailers were sited in a hazardous location at the plant, near a blowdown drum which spewed highly flammable hydrocarbons that were ignited by an idling pickup truck. The agency has recommended to the American Petroleum Institute (API) that trailer siting guidelines be revised.

Other panelists included Kim Nibarger, health and safety specialist for the United Steelworkers (USW), Frank L. "Skip" Bowman, retired admiral and member of the BP Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel, which was instituted on the recommendation of the CSB and headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III, and Red Cavaney, American Petroleum Institute president and CEO.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.

The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Please visit our website, www.csb.gov.

For more information, contact Sandy Gilmour at (202) 261-7614 / (202) 251-5496 cell.

 

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