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Most emergency responders are familiar with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is charged with investigating transportation incidents in this country to increase safety in all modes of transportation. Whenever an accident occurs involving aircraft, trains, buses or other modes of mass transportation, the NTSB is quick to mobilize and arrive on the scene to start investigating the cause.
Recent legislation passed by Congress has identified the NTSB as the lead agency for aircraft accident investigations. The NTSB's jurisdiction, however, is limited to transportation accidents. When a propane rail car exploded in Kingman, AZ, 25 years ago, killing 11 firefighters and one civilian, the NTSB responded, but could not investigate because the tank was on a rail siding and not in transit (see Firehouse®, July 1998).
Emergency officials repeatedly urged the creation of a similar federal agency to investigate accidents involving chemicals in transportation, storage and use. The first steps were taken in 1990, when Congress attached amendments to Public Law 101-549, the Clean Air Act, authorizing the creation of an independent federal agency to concentrate on the investigation of chemical accidents. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) was born.
After several years of growing pains as well as attempts by the Clinton Administration to eliminate it through budget cuts, the CSB began operations on Jan. 5, 1998. It has already been involved in more than 15 chemical accidents, including a propane explosion in Iowa that killed two volunteer firefighters.
The board's mission is to "work in concert with industry, labor, government and communities to help prevent accidents" involving chemicals. This mission is to be accomplished by:
- Investigating and issuing reports on causes of chemical accidents.
- Assessing the effectiveness of federal agencies in preventing chemical accidents.
- Eliminating duplication of efforts at the federal level concerning chemical accident investigation and prevention.
- Conducting special studies.
- Providing the findings of investigations and research to industry to improve safety of operations.
Further, the board has been charged by Congress with providing an independent evaluation of chemical accident causes, advancing approaches for mitigating the problems, and describing means to consolidate and curtail costs of the government's accident investigation operations. Congress has further mandated that the board investigate or cause to be investigated any and all accidental releases of any toxic or hazardous chemical resulting in a fatality, serious injury or substantial property damage.
Reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Resource Conser-vation and Recovery Information System (RCRIS) have indicated that there are "278,755 facilities that generate, transport, treat, store and/or dispose of regulated hazardous waste." Additionally, the NTSB reports that "about four billion tons of regulated hazardous materials are shipped each year with more than 250,000 shipments of hazardous materials entering into the transportation system daily."
Bhopal A "Wake-Up Call"
In 1984, an accident occurred in Bhopal, India, that was a "wake-up call" for the world in terms of illustrating the devastation that chemicals can cause when released into the environment. More than 3,000 people died when methyl isocyanate was released from a chemical plant.
Many chemicals have the potential to cause a catastrophe, not only to industry workers, but to surrounding communities. Taking a proactive approach can have a positive outcome in preventing these types of disasters before they occur.