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Q&A: Chemical Safety Board chair on the Torrance refinery explosion

Embattled Chemical Safety Board chair Rafael Moure-Eraso on the Torrance blast and controversy in Congress

Rafael Moure-Eraso’s tenure as chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board ends in June, but he’s spending his final days awash in controversy and hustling to finish projects.

This week, he flew to Torrance, where CSB investigators launched a probe into a Feb. 18 explosion at Exxon Mobil Corp.’s refinery. The incident caused minor injuries and contributed to a sharp increase in California's gas prices.

The blast prompted U.S. Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) to send a formal request last week for a CSB investigation. But currently, many government officials wish someone besides Moure-Eraso, 68, was leading it.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- chairman of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works -- and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) last week so far as to demand Moure-Eraso's resignation.

In the letter Thursday to President Obama, the senators say there is “no doubt” the Colombia native has “lost the confidence” of his employees and legislators.

The agency has become "a dysfunctional mess" in his five years as chairman, marked by a “pattern of hostility toward career staff and whistleblowers,” the senators wrote. Moure-Eraso, they allege, also violated the Federal Records Act by using a private email account to conduct official business.

Earlier this month, Obama nominated Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chief counsel for the U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, as Moure-Eraso’s successor.

During Moure-Eraso’s brief Torrance visit, he sat down to chat with The Times. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

How is the investigation proceeding so far in Torrance? Why did you decide to send a team to this particular site?

We have ten people – seven investigators, who are mostly conducting interviews with witnesses, as well as two consultants dealing with blasts and a specialist in engineering and structural issues.

We are looking at the events that led to the explosion. What are the particular safety management regulations that were applied there that didn’t work to prevent this from happening?

When it’s an issue of national interest, elected officials call on us. Congressman Lieu and Congresswoman Waters seem to think refineries are a national priority, and we agree with them. And this is a key issue in California, especially after Richmond (where a fire broke out in 2012 due to a diesel leak at the Chevron refinery). We have a state government that is engaged very seriously in modernizing the regulations that will apply to refineries based on our recommendations from various investigations around the state. Having another big incident in a refinery makes the point that there are reasons to have concerns about the refinery sector in California and the nation.

Exxon says the explosion was caused by excess pressure in its electrostatic precipitator machinery. Your take?

This is all very preliminary. The immediate cause was over-pressurization, but we’re looking at what decisions were made, the safety culture, that created the situation that allowed the explosion to happen. We would like to go through the entire chain of events and look for the root problem. We interview people to corroborate facts, look at all computer records of control rooms – pressure levels, temperatures.

A chemical that we have a special interest in is hydrogen fluoride (a highly corrosive compound), which was kept immediately adjacent to the electrostatic precipitator that exploded. Even though there is not any evidence that there were any leaks, the potential that it might have happened is reason for us to look at how this type of work is being done so, in the future, we eliminate as much risk as possible.

We get a range of responses usually from companies. Exxon has been very cooperative and wide open.

How long would you anticipate an investigation like this taking?

Every investigation is different – it’s very difficult to predict. Usually, 60 days from deployment, we hold an internal meeting to decide the direction of the investigation. Sometimes we require outside analysis of data and samples. We like to call on the community to discuss preliminary results. It will be a matter of months before there’s any kind of public meeting.

The Chemical Safety Board has been criticized for taking too long on investigations and not doing enough of them. What's your response?

We are modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board. The investigations they do don’t take weeks or months. And ours are based on a lot of very carefully conducted interviews, sometimes with dozens of witnesses, lots of data and analysis. All of that takes time. This is a slow, painstaking process.

Before my tenure began, the past regime had deployed teams in some places and didn’t follow up. I had 22 unattended investigations, which was a really difficult way to start. So there were remnants from the past and also new investigations. We have to prioritize – we have three working investigation teams. We don’t have the resources for additional teams, though we’ve been asking for the past five years. Sometimes we have to withdraw a team in one location and move it to another. It’s like musical chairs.

Some Congress members have called for your resignation, even though your term ends in June. Are they justified?

A lot of it is political. The mission of the organization is to produce good reports that make a difference for safety. We are doing that. I can show that we are producing the best reports ever produced in the agency. I stand by that. All of this other talk is peripheral.

I have 14 weeks left. We’re on the verge of releasing the report on Deepwater (Horizon, the drilling rig that exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and resulting in the worst oil spill in U.S. history). Just this week, the (New Orleans-based) Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in our favor after one of the companies involved challenged our jurisdiction. I am very much committed to getting that report out – we have the last draft. Also, we have two other investigations that I’m looking forward to completing and I am moving as fast as I can to finish those. We’ve completed eight reports in the past eight months – the most productive rate in the agency’s history.

Some people in your agency complain about low morale, accuse you of retaliating against employees who raise complaints and allege that you used personal email to hide information from others in the organization. Do such feelings affect your ability to preserve safety?

There have been a lot of accusations, but none of those have ever ended in any findings. The Office of Special Counsel (an independent federal investigative agency) has made no recommendations. Anybody can claim actions against whistleblowers, but there’s no evidence of this. To just say it is not enough. What I would like to be judged for is the quality of the product and the fulfillment of our mission. There will always be people complaining. But they are all rumors.

Twitter: @tiffhsulatimes

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