UPDATE 2-Chemical Safety Board in disarray - U.S. House report

Thu Jun 19, 2014 12:59pm EDT

(Adds hearings underway in paragraph 5, Waxman recommendations, paragraph 14)

June 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is in disarray and has struggled to finish investigations into serious accidents at chemical plants and refineries that in one case killed seven people, according to a draft report by two Congressional committees.

The report, prepared by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and two other officials have created an "abusive and hostile work environment" at the board's offices. The report was issued on Thursday.

As a result, experienced investigators have left, according to the report, and delayed probes such as the one into the 2010 explosion at Tesoro Petroleum Corp's refinery in Anacortes, Washington, that killed seven.

The committee report also said the board did not issue urgent recommendations to correct safety risks at Tesoro's Anacortes refinery as soon as possible due to CSB infighting.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was conducting a hearing on Thursday on the CSB's management, said Chairman Darrel Issa, a California Republican.

In a statement prepared for an appearance before Issa's committee, Moure-Eraso said the CSB is a small agency carrying out large, complex investigations. He added that the U.S. General Accountability Office had faulted the board's management in a 2008 report.

But since being appointed chairman by President Barack Obama in 2010, Moure-Eraso said he has worked to improve agency management.

"I reorganized lines of management to create clear lines of authority as well as accountability that were virtually non-existent before 2010," he said. "The result has been to raise the already high quality of CSB reports and broaden the scope of the root cause investigations."

The CSB's final report on the Tesoro explosion was issued earlier this year.

One reason for slow investigations, the report said, was the board's decision to take on the complex probe of the 2010 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig contracted to BP Plc . The CSB's investigation into the explosion, which killed 11 people and led to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, was its first of an offshore accident.

The board, which has an annual budget of $11 million, has spent over $4 million on the Deepwater Horizon probe, parts of which are ongoing.

An unidentified former board member told the committee's investigators that the board's probe was probably a mistake as other agencies completed their own inquiries years before the board issued its first reports on the disaster, according to the report.

The board has sought publicity by deploying investigators to chemical accidents, but been less concerned with completing the probes, the report said.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, made recommendations in May to the CSB, aimed at ending infighting among board members and improving its operations, according to a committee spokeswoman.

(For link to report click: here) (Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston; Editing by Terry Wade, Andre Grenon and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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