Monday, November 27, 2006

Fire Chief To Chem Safety Board: 'Take A Hike'

Imagine a plane crashes into a small town in Massachusetts and the local fire chief tells National Transportation Safety Board investigators that their services are not needed, thank you very much. "We'll handle this..... "

When two hundred residents of Danvers, Massachusetts were rocked from their beds last week by a massive explosion at a CAI, Inc., a nearby industrial paint and ink factory, most were probably unaware that pagers and cell phones soon started beeping in the bedrooms of investigators from the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The CSB, a small independent government agency that recently rocketed to fame with its revelations on CBS's 60 Minutes about the investigation of the massive 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery, was commissioned by Congress to perform independent investigations of chemical plant accidents. The Board, created by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, identifies the root causes of incidents and makes recommendations to companies, associations and state and local government agencies in order to prevent similar accidents from happening. Since its creation eight years ago, the Board has conducted around 40 investigations.

But not everyone is pleased by the pleased with the CSB's mission. Danvers Fire Chief James Tutko is refusing to allow CSB investigators on the site, allegedly because the site is still a crime scene:
Tutko has said the federal team was "uninvited" and "unwelcome," but CSB spokesman Daniel Horowitz said his agency has statutory authorization to enter the site and gather evidence under provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.

"Our chairman has made it clear we're not going away," Horowitz said. "We're going to be talking with the state fire marshal tomorrow (Monday) and we're looking at a range of legal options."
The Boston Globe isn't buying it, noting that the Board's role to identify steps that might be taken to prevent future disasters sometimes rubs local officials the wrong way.
The feds may find, for example, that inadequate local fire codes contributed to a fire. They may find that inspections were not up to par in some regard. They may also produce findings that differ from those of local officials, who are accustomed to investigating fires together -- and, in some cases, covering each other's backs.

"Our role is to determine the root causes and make those public, so other communities in Massachusetts and elsewhere are protected from this kind of devastating accident," Horowitz said.


Its investigators need to see evidence before it has been picked over by several other investigators. Otherwise, the safety board investigators' ability to reconstruct the fire could be severely compromised .

One of the last things anyone needs at this point is a turf battle. A fire has displaced hundreds and wrecked the peace of a city. When a plane crashes, local investigators do their work, and federal investigators do theirs. That is the way to serve the public interest, and frankly there's no good reason any of this should be up to the Danvers fire chief.
Some of the Board's reports have highlighted the inability of fire departments to oversee and enforce the large number of industrial fire codes that states have adopted. The CSB's recent combustible dust study, for example, found that local fire departments generally do not have adequate resources to inspect most industrial facilities, nor the expertise to oversee complex industrial processes. Those industrial inspections that do take place focus mainly on "life safety" issues like fire extinguishers, sprinklers and emergency exits.

Meanwhile, OSHA, which has primary responsibility for industrial safety, is far too understaffed to inspect more than a handful of industrial facilities every year. CAI Inc. has never been inspected by OSHA, according to the agency's website. An AFL-CIO analysis shows that it would take OSHA 124 years to visit every jobsite in Massachusetts at least once .