Chemical safety board takes cues from NTSB Agency investigating Condea explosion 'a well-hidden secret'

November 02, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Minutes past 7 p.m. on Oct. 13, Alan Pollock, a 12-year National Transportation Safety Board employee, was at home watching television when a news bulletin reported an explosion at Condea Vista's South Baltimore chemical plant.

The accident, which sent five workers and three residents to local hospitals, did not involve a plane or a train, but Pollock called his office anyway. He wanted the NTSB to report the incident to an obscure federal agency: the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

He had touched off what may be the most comprehensive federal investigation of a Maryland chemical manufacturer. The 9-month-old body, known as the Chemical Safety Board, quickly sent its investigators -- all three -- to the Free State for the first time.

"This country has begun a new era in how we investigate chemical releases," said Patrick Rowsey, who studies plant operations for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, a trade group. "The board is asking questions and examining issues in a way that hasn't been done before."

That the board's first call in Maryland came via the National Transportation Safety Board was fitting. The new safety board has patterned itself after the NTSB down to the design of its forms. And with six investigations under way, the board aims to match its transportation counterpart's influence in American life.

"For now, we're a well-hidden secret," said Phyllis Thompson, the board's chief operating officer.

Like the NTSB, the Chemical Safety Board is an independent, scientific agency that reports to Congress, not the president. While the board has no regulatory or enforcement powers, it has a broad mandate.

The CSB can investigate the "root causes" of any chemical release in the United States -- from fatal explosions to minor spills that close roads -- and make recommendations on how to prevent such incidents. Investigators examine not only the actions of the responsible company but also the performance of government agencies regulating the industry.

'I feel watched'

In Baltimore, the board's presence, and mandate, has created a new dynamic in the effort to find the cause of the accident. "I know CSB is a good thing, but it makes me nervous," said one state investigator working at Condea Vista. "I feel watched."

"We expect that," said Phil Cogan, a Federal Emergency Management Administration veteran who is in charge of the board's external relations. "You have to realize it took a long time for the government to understand they needed us."

It took eight years. Congress established the Chemical Safety Board in 1990. In 1994, the U.S. Senate confirmed Paul Hill, who headed the nonprofit National Institute for Chemical Studies, as board chairman. But the Clinton administration, prodded by deficit hawks and turf-conscious Environmental Protection Agency officials, delayed funding the board until late last year.

The board opened for business Jan. 5. Working from a budget of $4 million for fiscal 1998 (and $6.5 million for fiscal 1999), board chairman Hill has slowly added staff and gotten other federal agencies to lend CSB employees and resources.

Earlier this year, staffing and budget shortages forced the Washington-based board to back off from investigating a number of chemical accidents. But the same constraints made Condea Vista a tempting target. The board can conduct a full investigation in South Baltimore without spending money on airfare and hotels.

"We chose to get involved in this based on the fact that it's in our back yard," Cogan said.

The accident's severity -- it was described as "catastrophic" by Condea Vista executives -- also attracted the board, Cogan said. The explosion of a 10-foot-tall reactor sparked an hourlong fire, prompted panic in nearby neighborhoods and created a thick cloud of black smoke that forced the closing of Interstate 895.

The board's team, led by chief investigator Bob Brant, a former emergency response official for Mobil Oil Co., said the team is trying to reconstruct the explosion, much as the NTSB might put together the pieces of a fallen plane.

At a recent public briefing in Brooklyn, board investigators promised a full report within six months and said their probe had raised new questions. Did the company's decision in July to change the catalyst it uses in a key production, from aluminum chloride to aluminum, contribute to the explosion? Was Condea Vista's use of contract employees a factor?

Why did state and local officials take so long to notify Wagner's Point and Fairfield residents of the accident? What about the integrity of the exploded reactor? The board called in an expert on pressure vessels and piping from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to help answer that last question.

'Something different'

"The board is something different," said David L. Mahler, environmental manager for Condea Vista's Baltimore plant, which makes a detergent ingredient. "They are not that fast in their work, but they are methodical, and they ask smart questions."

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