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Hazardex interview: John Bresland, former Chairman, US Chemical Safety Board

01 August 2013

The Piper 25 conference on offshore safety held in Aberdeen in June 2013 brought together an exceptional roster of speakers from industry, academia, government and regulatory bodies worldwide. One of the plenary session speakers was John Bresland, the former chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the principal investigatory body into process plant incidents in the USA. 

His long career has involved environmental safety, managing a major US chemical plant and high-level process safety research, as well as eight years with the CSB.

After his presentation in Aberdeen, he spoke to Hazardex about his experiences in industry and investigation, some of the specific incidents that companies should learn from and the challenges and opportunities facing US high hazard industry regulation into the future.

Bresland is a native of Northern Ireland, but after university he was offered a job by Allied Chemical, later part of the Honeywell group, and spent the next 35 years at various locations in the USA. Here he worked in environmental control, process engineering and plant management, including a period managing the then largest phenol and acetone plant in the world in Philadelphia. He retired from Honeywell in 2000 after five years as director of environmental risk management, and in 2002 was nominated by President George W Bush to the Chemical Safety Board, on which he served as chairman from 2008 to 2010.

He is currently president of Process Safety Risk Assessment LLC, a consulting company, and is a research fellow at the Mary Kay O‘Connor Process Safety Center of Texas A&M University.

Allied Chemical, Philadelphia

Bresland is evangelical about process safety because he has personal experience of what happens when it breaks down.

“I know first hand what this is like. On 9 March 1982 I was environmental manager at the Allied Chemical phenol plant in Philadelphia when there was a major explosion. Thankfully, there were no casualties, but had circumstances been slightly different there could well have been fatalities.

“I was away from the plant when the incident started, but when I returned that night there was chaos – explosions, fire, twisted metal. I’d never seen anything like it. It was also traumatic for my wife – from where she worked she could see the smoke and didn’t know if I was there.

“The next day, in my office, I had at least eight different environmental and safety agencies wanting to know what happened. The CSB was not there because it did not exist then. No report on the incident was ever made public, but I have the Allied Chemical report at home in my files. If the CSB had been around in 1982 I believe there would have been some very interesting recommendations from their investigation.

“I cannot tell you how strange it is to move from a situation where the plant is operating normally to another, not long after, where the pipework resembles a bowl of spaghetti and significant parts of the facility have been devastated.

“Once the incident was over and the plant rebuilt I became the operations manager and eventually the plant manager. But the incident was a defining moment for me. It’s a little like being in a car accident – you never forget it.”

Regulation and investigation

John Bresland, former Chairman, US Chemical Safety Board
John Bresland, former Chairman, US Chemical Safety Board

The US has a two-tier system where regulation is separate from investigation. The regulatory agencies responsible for plant safety and environmental control are the Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The CSB will investigate incidents at chemical plants, refineries and other facilities where chemicals are involved, establishing root causes and issuing recommendations to the facility, company, trade organisation and regulatory agencies to ensure lessons are learned.

The CSB also produces videos describing the incident and root causes, which are used worldwide as training tools.(1)

Bresland says there is often a tension between the different organisations involved. “OSHA was never that enthused about getting our recommendations, as generally that meant more work for them writing new regulations.”

An example of this is in the area of combustible dusts. The CSB has been very critical of OSHA’s foot-dragging over updating its standards in this area. In a Senate hearing in 2008 after the dust explosion that killed 13 at the Imperial Sugar facility in Georgia, Bresland called on OSHA to act on a November 2006 CSB recommendation to adopt a comprehensive standard regulating combustible dust in the workplace.

He told senators: "A comprehensive OSHA dust standard is necessary to get businesses, government inspectors, and insurers to identify dust hazards and take appropriate actions to control them. Existing standards do not clearly identify what kinds of dust are hazardous and only address limited aspects of how to control those hazards."

Bresland noted the CSB's 2006 Combustible Dust Study identified 281 dust fires and explosions in the US between 1980 and 2005, killing 119 and injuring 718 workers.

Macondo, Gulf of Mexico

Another problem has been legal ambiguity over the jurisdiction of the CSB, and the many competing organisations called in to investigate after a large-scale disaster. As an example of this, Bresland cites the Macondo well blowout in 2010.

“The CSB became aware of the Deepwater Horizon incident on April 20, 2010, the day it occurred. I was chairman at the time and after long discussions, we decided against an investigation for two reasons. The first was that, unlike onshore plants, we had little offshore expertise, and the second was that there was some legal uncertainty about our remit to carry out offshore investigations.”

The US Coast Guard and Senate, amongst many others, set up investigations soon after the start of the incident.

Bresland continues: “However, about six weeks after the explosion and fire, the CSB received a letter from the Energy Committee of the House of Representatives asking that the CSB carry out an investigation into Deepwater Horizon.

 “In my conversations with existing members of the Board, I am told that the investigation report is in draft form and is currently being reviewed. It should be made public in December 2013. Among the topics to be discussed in the report are safety management systems, safety metrics and offshore regulations. There will also be a number of recommendations.”

The aftermath of the Imperial Sugar dust explosion – Photo: CSB
The aftermath of the Imperial Sugar dust explosion – Photo: CSB

One of the reasons for the delay in the report is a legal dispute between the CSB and Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon. Transocean has refused to cooperate with the CSB, claiming the Board does not have jurisdiction over offshore incidents. This was taken to federal court, where the ruling was that the CSB did have jurisdiction. Transocean is now appealing that decision.

In January 2013, Transocean did agree to pay a $1.4 billion fine to settle criminal and civil charges resulting from the incident and subsequent oil spill. The case against BP continues.

The US Coast Guard, National Commission, National Academy of Engineering, US Justice Department and Congress all carried out investigations, and most of these have been completed and the reports are publicly available.

“Traditionally, the CSB bring out facts that are missed by the other agencies,” says Bresland. “Typically, the other agency that would cover an event such as this would be OSHA, but it is limited in what it can do. It looks at the fairly general regulations governing an area, usually performance-based.

“Say there’s an explosion and the company running the plant does not have spark-proof instruments on the wall. It may not have had anything to do with the explosion, but OSHA will come in and fine the company for the lack of spark-proof instruments. And these fines are fairly limited – up to $77,000 per incident. If they want to levy a large fine, they have to find a lot of incidents.

“But they often don’t get to the core of the problem because they are only looking at whether the company complied with the regulations. 

“The Chemical Safety Board goes in, like the US National Transportation Safety Board, and its investigators are trained to ask relevant questions, to do investigations. We take it slowly, never ask leading questions and try to work out what happened.

“We look beyond the regulations to the basic causes, and that makes for a much more authoritative report. The CSB report on Deepwater Horizon, when it comes out, will be considered the gold standard.”

Looking back at the Macondo blowout and the earlier Texas City incident in 2005, where 15 were killed in a refinery explosion, Bresland says he is perplexed at how BP, a company of virtually limitless resources, managed to have two such catastrophic incidents within six years.

He contrasts BP with ExxonMobil. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska had a dramatic effect on the operations of the company. 

“That incident resulted in the installation of an operations integrity management system (OIMS) everywhere within the organisation, and I have been told by an independent observer whose views I respect that that system is one of the best, if not the best, in the industry.”

West Fertilizer, Texas

Deepwater Horizon on fire in the Gulf of Mexico – Photo: USCG
Deepwater Horizon on fire in the Gulf of Mexico – Photo: USCG

A more recent incident in the US shows many of the problems facing companies, regulators and investigators. On April 17 there was an explosion at a small fertiliser plant in the town of West, Texas, killing 15, mainly firefighters and paramedics.

A fire ignited a store of ammonium nitrate which exploded after staff had gone home for the day. The emergency crews, who had come to fight the fire, were caught in the blast.

In his position as a process safety research fellow at Texas A&M, Bresland visited the site with five PhD students a week later. 

“I think what was most sobering was the extent of the damage done to schools, a nursing home and houses nearby, and the enormous emotional and financial burden suffered by local residents. Because there were so many retirees in the community, many had paid off their mortgages and let their insurance lapse, so many had lost everything.

“With BP at Texas City or Macondo you have a company with deep pockets, but it’s not the same at West – they were only insured for $1 million.

“Several questions arise out of this tragedy. Did the local community know about the storage of ammonium nitrate so close to their homes? What did the fire department know about the hazards present at the site? And what about the many other facilities across the US that store ammonium nitrate?

“And thinking in a broader frame of reference, what about other industries that store hazardous chemicals?

Bresland has been invited by Congress to testify about this event at a later date.

In the aftermath of the West incident, the dysfunctional nature of regulation and follow-up investigations in the USA became painfully apparent. 

“The political backdrop is all important in these cases, particularly in Texas,” Bresland says. “But there are any number of fertiliser plants in the USA, and I have visited many, where there are piles of ammonium nitrate lying around.

“If you have large amounts of explosive chemicals you should report it to Homeland Security (HS), but companies often do not. And anyway, the relevant HS programme - CFATS (Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards) - has spent huge amounts over the last few years and doesn’t seem to have achieved very much.

“I was talking to someone at Homeland Security last week, and he said the requirement to report chemicals such as ammonium nitrate is quite vague. I could argue that you do need to report under the legislation, but if you don’t, HS has no authority to go and do anything about it, like levy fines or send someone to prison. And you’re often dealing with small companies that have no awareness of these rules.”

West explosion site from ROAV - Photo: CSB
West explosion site from ROAV - Photo: CSB

At West, OSHA, the EPA, the Department of Homeland Security, the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), Alcohol, Tobaccol and Firearms Bureau (ATF), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and others all might have been involved in regulating the site.

In 2012, the PHMSA fined West Fertilizer $5,250 for storing anhydrous ammonia in tanks that lacked the proper warning labels and in 2006, the EPA fined it $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

“In big companies there’s someone reading the Federal Register every day and saying: ‘There’s a new regulation, we need to comply with that’. But in small companies like the one at West there’s nothing like that,” says Bresland.

“And then when the incident happens, the alphabet soup of regulators descends, they all have different approaches and they can tread on each other’s toes.”

The alphabet soup

“At West, the ATF and local sheriff’s office didn’t let the CSB on site at first, which the Board has experienced in the past,” says Bresland. “And you have to be careful with the ATF – they’re the guys with the guns! They’re kinda macho! 

“There was an explosion in a meat factory in North Carolina and the ATF turned up thinking it could be a terrorist attack, but it was obvious that it had nothing to do with terrorism. Who’s going to blow up a meat factory? The ATF turned up with a big trailer, guns and lie-detectors, scaring the hell out of people.”

In a statement in May, the CSB said it would examine “the effectiveness of regulatory coverage” at West Fertilizer by OSHA, the EPA and the state of Texas. The agency said it would study land use planning and zoning practices for high hazard facilities that allowed vulnerable population centres like schools and residential areas near such plants. It would also review the emergency response to the fire, as well as preparedness planning in West, compared to good practices elsewhere.

Another problem, Bresland says, is that some US regulators and investigators are starved of resources. 

“Politically, there is no enthusiasm for hiring more staff – especially not at OSHA, which is not popular at the moment. But the reality is they really do need more resources. The Chemical Safety Board also needs more resources but because of budgetary restraints, it’s difficult to get them.”

As an example of this, when the Energy Committee of the House of Representatives asked the CSB to carry out its investigation into the Deepwater Horizon incident, Bresland says they requested an extra $5m in supplementary funding to carry out what was bound to be a difficult and detailed investigation. The CSB is still waiting for this, he says.

The former CSB chairman recognises the problems of high hazard industry regulation and investigation in the US; the uneven playing field as regards funding, the sheer number of different agencies and the blurred responsibilities and jurisdictions. “It really is a bit of a mess,” he says.

CSB inspectors at the scene of an incident – Photo: CSB
CSB inspectors at the scene of an incident – Photo: CSB

But most of them are still doing an important job, he thinks, with the CSB leading the way in providing clear and immediately useful advice to industry on fundamental safety issues.

Getting it right

Bresland says his years as an investigator have led him to conclude that there are three main levels of safety awareness within industry.

“My first category would be companies that simply do not understand process safety. The CSB investigation into the 2008 Imperial Sugar plant explosion in Georgia, for example,  showed that housekeeping in the plant was abysmal. No one was paying any attention to the problem of sugar dust. There is no excuse for not understanding the hazards of the operations you are overseeing.

“The second is companies that try to understand process safety, but in spite of that still have incidents, some minor, some catastrophic. I believe that these types of company are in the majority. I know that it must be perplexing for the senior management of these companies – they take training seriously and have tried to put good people in place – but there are still problems.

“Some companies concentrate too much on personal safety while ignoring process safety, for example. That’s what we found at BP Texas City. The operators who died had just come back from an event to celebrate the plant’s excellent record of personal safety, when the explosion happened.

“Another common problem is lack of recognition of the hazards of a product because there have been no incidents before. In certain conditions, an otherwise innocuous product can become extremely dangerous.

“The third category is those that truly understand process safety. They have excellent programmes and people, and they do not have any serious incidents. Other companies should find out what they are doing right and try to emulate them.”

“Is it rocket science? Yes, it is. You’re working in very complex facilities and you need the utmost attention to detail every day,” Bresland says. “Your employees and your communities depend on you to do the right thing.”


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