Federal agency probing Torrance refinery blast faces possible extinction

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The chief federal agency tasked with investigating the Torrance ExxonMobil refinery explosion is targeted for extinction by the Trump administration at the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30, and advocates are rallying to save the Chemical Safety Board.

CSB Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said the agency should have a clearer idea of its possible fate when the complete budget proposal comes out midmonth.

The CSB is one of 19 agencies Trump is seeking to kill; others such as the Environmental Protection Agency face steep cuts.

“As far as we know, currently we are still on for possible elimination,” Sutherland said Wednesday in Torrance, where the agency was releasing its final investigatory report into the blast.

“We are the only safety agency proposed for elimination,” she added.

The CSB has launched a campaign dubbed the “Business Case for Safety,” intended to demonstrate that safety is good for business and a company’s bottom line.

The agency notes that the 130 investigations it has conducted resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars of expenditures to improve safety at the nation’s chemical facilities.

“Good safety management is also good business, and it makes sense for a variety of reasons,” Sutherland said.

“If the CSB’s many safety lessons prevented at least one catastrophic incident, the money saved by preventing damage to the facility and surrounding community, avoiding legal settlements, and saving human lives far exceeds the agency’s $11 million budget,” she added.

Under former President Barack Obama, critics said the staff of the small agency was known more for political infighting and appeared generally dysfunctional, giving critics ammunition to get rid of it.

But backers said the performance of the CSB has improved in recent months and that no other federal agency duplicates its watchdog role of the industry.

Sally Hayati, president of the grass-roots Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, said the CSB was the first agency to respond to the group’s concerns over the safety of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid used at the former ExxonMobil refinery.

“The Chemical Safety Board comes closer than many other agencies when it comes to looking out for the public interest,” she said. “The reason the current administration wants to get rid of them is not because they’re ineffective.

“Even though they don’t have the authority to enforce compliance by revealing the truth about the way these companies are run — they put profit ahead of public safety, they cut corners, they don’t make repairs, etc., etc. — they make it harder for those companies to ignore them.”

Former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman put the dilemma of cutting the CSB in perspective in a recent comment to the Reuters news agency.

“If you want to put the American people in danger, this is the way to do it,” she said.

Glenn Ruskin, a spokesman for the nonprofit American Chemical Society, said the group has mobilized to support the CSB and is encouraged by the level of congressional support it has seen from Republicans and Democrats alike to retain the agency.

He believes the agency will escape the budget ax.

“For $11 million, it is a miniscule investment in driving results that benefit not only the chemical enterprise, but the general public, so without them there would be a loss felt,” he said. “As any organization from time to time you have operational issues. Under the current chair Vanessa Sutherland and the team that’s in place they’ve hit their stride and they’re really working very well and functionally.”



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