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Biden and Harris look to restore science to US governance

C&EN looks at what new US leadership will mean for chemists and chemistry

February 1, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 4
A photo of Joe Biden at his inauguration. Vice President Kamala Harris claps to his right and Dr. Jill Biden stands to his left.

Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images | President Joe Biden delivers his inauguration address at the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, DC, while Vice President Kamala Harris (right) claps.


“We’re going to lead with science and truth,” Joe Biden said when announcing his science advisers a few days before his Jan. 20 inauguration as US president. His declaration came as the country mourned nearly 400,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic and just 10 days after insurrectionists, fueled by Donald J. Trump’s lies about election fraud, stormed the Capitol.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris face multiple crises, and the White House states that the administration’s initial priorities include “actions to control the COVID-19 pandemic, provide economic relief, tackle climate change, and advance racial equity and civil rights, as well as immediate actions to reform our immigration system and restore America’s standing in the world.”

These tasks won’t be easy. Biden has started reversing Trump’s executive orders and directed his administration to revisit Trump-era regulations. But the Senate is already lagging at confirming nominees to Biden’s cabinet and other top posts—Biden’s inauguration heralded the first time in decades that a new president did not have a defense secretary in place. Meanwhile, an exodus of experienced civil servants over the past 4 years left federal agencies depleted, and it will take time to rebuild their ranks. Additionally, although Democrats technically control Congress, margins are slim, and passing major legislation will require bipartisan cooperation.

Already this year, C&EN has delivered its annual World Chemical Outlook and dug deep into what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and how it may affect science going forward. Read on to learn what the Biden-Harris administration may mean for chemistry, chemists, and their communities, including advancing new materials for climate change, controlling pollution at industrial fence lines, developing a workforce from around the globe, regulating genetically modified animals, and more.


Climate Change

Gearing up to tackle global warming

by Cheryl Hogue
Credit: Doug Mills - Pool Via Cnp/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom
On the day he was sworn in as president, Joe Biden signed an order for the US to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change.


In his campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to set the US on a path to net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 at the latest. His plans in large part hinge on switching the US to cleaner energy sources, an effort that would create research and development funding opportunities for chemists and materials scientists.

"These efforts require transformative strategies to develop new materials for overcoming the limitations of existing technology," says Prashant V. Kamat, a chemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame. "Chemists can make a major contribution to these efforts."

For instance, meeting Biden's goals will require the development of new materials for fast-charging storage batteries and of photovoltaic materials with a low carbon footprint, says Kamat, editor in chief of ACS Energy Letters. He points out that current silicon-based photovoltaics take about 3 years of operation to offset the greenhouse gases from their production. (ACS, the American Chemical Society, publishes C&EN.)

To help realize his climate goals, Biden chose people who have deep experience on climate change policy for top administrative positions. For instance, he picked Gina McCarthy, who led the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of the Obama administration, to oversee federal domestic action as national climate adviser. McCarthy is part of Biden's climate team, which also includes nominees to lead the Departments of Energy and the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Council on Environmental Quality. Biden's secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, told a Senate panel during her January confirmation hearing that she plans to create a "climate hub" at the department, which steers US economic and financial polices. Even Biden's selection for attorney general, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, has extensive experience in environmental law. In addition, Biden created a new White House entity—the Office of Domestic Climate Policy.

These efforts require transformative strategies to develop new materials for overcoming the limitations of existing technology.
Prashant V. Kamat, chemistry professor, University of Notre Dame

On his first day in office, Biden took a crucial step to rejoin global climate negotiations: he reenrolled the US in the Paris Agreement, reversing former president Donald J. Trump's withdrawal from that 2015 pact. Many scientific organizations, including ACS, and some chemical companies were disappointed in Trump's move, which left the US isolated from the accord that nearly all the world's countries belong to. Former secretary of state John Kerry, a foreign relations veteran and Biden's pick to be special presidential envoy for climate, is leading the path back to international engagement on climate.

Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Congress is poised to act on Biden's call for action on climate change and cleaner energy. But the going won't be easy.

Democrats hold a slim majority in the House of Representatives—as of C&EN's deadline, 221 versus 211 Republicans. The House will have an easier time moving legislation than the Senate, which is split 50–50. Vice President Kamala Harris will cast the deciding vote in any Senate tie, giving Democrats an advantage. If Senate Republicans are united against a bill, all 48 Democrats and the two independents that caucus with them, Sens. Angus King (ME) and Bernie Sanders (VT), will have to join together to achieve a tie.

In addition, Biden's planned regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions and require cleaner energy production will, when finalized, likely end up challenged in federal courts. Their fate may ultimately rest with the US Supreme Court, with its 6–3 majority of conservative justices.



Communities push for say in environmental regulation

by Rick Mullin
Credit: Courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers
Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, spoke at an event for climate change activists at the US Capitol in November 2019.


Last year was marked by a historic summit at which environmental justice leaders met with mainstream environmental groups to craft a national climate agenda focusing on the concerns of communities at industrial fence lines.

Principles outlined in the resulting Equitable and Just National Climate Platform are reflected throughout President Joe Biden’s agenda, in areas such as environment, energy, and health. Indeed, the Biden campaign’s Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity puts forward what it calls an “all-of-government” approach to “rooting out the systemic racism in our laws, policies, institutions, and hearts.”

Community advocates and pioneers of the environmental justice movement are encouraged by Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order creating an environmental and climate justice division within the Department of Justice. Noting that the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump referred the fewest criminal pollution cases to the Justice Department in 30 years, Biden committed to increasing enforcement while seeking additional legislation to hold polluters to account—including those who harm communities of color.

We have been able to flex our muscle and not allow others to speak for us.
Robert D. Bullard, cochair, National Black Environmental Justice Network

Addressing systemic racism will require the US “to recognize the role environmental racism has played and redress that by investing in long-term, sustainable environmental justice solutions to center and empower communities that have for far too long been excluded,” said then-senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), now Biden’s vice president, in a July 30, 2020, statement when she and colleagues in the House and Senate introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act.

The thrust toward environmental justice in Biden’s agenda will play a key part in a general revitalization of regulation under the EPA. Regulations protecting fence-line and Native American communities under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) are likely to get greater enforcement. Biden has vowed to reestablish environmental rules that the Trump administration eliminated or rolled back.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, notes that Biden brought environmental justice community leaders into policy meetings early in 2020. “The first step to solving any problem is recognizing there is a problem,” says Flowers, who served on the climate task force convened by the Biden campaign last summer. “To find solutions, people from the communities have to be engaged,” she says. The Biden team’s seeking that engagement “shows a shift.”

A big shift, says Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and cochair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, an environmental justice advocacy group that relaunched last year after it had gone dormant after the death of its founder in 2006. “We have been able to flex our muscle and not allow others to speak for us,” Bullard says.

That muscle showed its strength when Biden picked Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to head the EPA instead of Mary Nichols, former chair of the California Air Resources Board. Community leaders and their allies in various environmental groups argued that Nichols’s track record showed an insufficient focus on fence-line communities. In North Carolina, Regan has focused on issues such as drinking-water contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and other industrial pollution.

Fence-line communities are keeping the pressure on. Late last year, a coalition of more than 550 community and conservation organizations proposed a Presidential Plastics Action Plan urging the Biden-Harris administration to address plastic pollution with a series of executive orders in its first 100 days.

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol may also alter the outlook for environmental justice. “The business community is going to be more responsible,” Flowers says, pointing to subsequent statements made by leading corporations distancing themselves from Trump and halting campaign contributions to members of Congress who voted against certifying Biden’s victory. “This will actually be the opportunity to start with truth telling and reconciliation.”

Members of the American Chemical Council (ACC), the leading chemical industry association in the US, “are committed to addressing the impacts of their facilities on the communities in which they operate,” Jenny Heumann Godes, an ACC communications director, says in an email.

She adds that risk assessment for vulnerable communities is already mandated under TSCA and that association members respond to community concerns about their operations under the ACC’s Responsible Care sustainability and community outreach program—an effort launched over 30 years ago that community groups and environmentalists largely dismiss as ineffective at communicating with fence-line communities.


Chemical Regulation

EPA faces pressure to revamp chemical risk evaluations

by Britt E. Erickson


This could be the year that the Environmental Protection Agency bolsters its evaluations of chemical risks under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Congress gave the EPA sweeping new authority to request toxicity data from chemical manufacturers when TSCA was amended in 2016, but for the most part, the agency chose not to do so during the past 4 years.

The EPA requested additional data from manufacturers for only 1 of the first 10 high-priority chemicals—pigment violet 29—that it assessed under the updated law. But there are signs that the tide is turning. In the final days of the Trump administration, the EPA requested additional toxicity data from manufacturers for 9 of the next 20 high-priority chemicals that it will evaluate.

Next 20 high-priority chemicals

7 chlorinated solvents

6 phthalates

4 flame retardants

1,3-Butadiene, used in manufacturing polymers


cyclopenta[g]-2-benzopyran, a fragrance additive.

Environmental groups hope that President Joe Biden's pick for principal deputy assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, Michal Freedhoff, will implement TSCA in a way that protects all people­—particularly those who are most vulnerable, such as workers and people living near industrial plants­—from hazardous chemicals. They are encouraging the EPA to reevaluate some of the first 10 high-priority chemicals to include additional exposures, such as from air, water, and soil. It's unclear whether the EPA will do so and whether it will consider such risks for the next 20 chemicals. The agency has repeatedly claimed that those additional exposures should be addressed not under TSCA but under other statutes, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The EPA will have some big decisions to make this year regarding how to reduce the risks that it identified in the first 10 assessments, including those for asbestos, methylene chloride, N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), and trichloroethylene. Per a court order, the agency will also have to address former uses of asbestos, such as in construction materials found in older buildings, which it did not evaluate in its initial assessment.

It is important that newer, more relevant studies, like the study showing stark differences between how rodents and humans metabolize 1,3-butadiene, inform TSCA evaluations instead of outdated studies and risk assessments.
American Chemistry Council

However, the Trump administration made it harder to ban methylene chloride and NMP in paint removers as well as trichloroethylene in certain degreasers and dry-cleaning agents. The EPA proposed ending such uses during the Obama administration, but it withdrew the ­proposals during the fin­al days of the Trump presidency. "This shameful move that epitomizes the Trump EPA's concerted attacks on public health is a transparent attempt to further constrain the incoming administration," Richard Denison, a lead senior scientist at the environmental group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), says in a statement. Denison says in a separate statement that he is looking forward to working with Freedhoff to get TSCA implementation "back on track."

The EDF and other environmental groups have also criticized the EPA under Trump for downplaying risks by assuming workers wear appropriate personal protective equipment and adhere to worker safety requirements imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The agency could justify those assumptions by pointing to a memorandum of understanding signed with OSHA in the waning days of the Trump administration. Under that agreement, the EPA will notify OSHA of necessary worker protections identified in its risk evaluations of new chemicals.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents chemical manufacturers, is urging the EPA to rely on the best available science as it evaluates the next 20 high-priority chemicals. The group is raising concerns about some studies that the EPA included in previous assessments of 2 of those chemicals, formaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene. "It is important that newer, more relevant studies, like the study showing stark differences between how rodents and humans metabolize 1,3-butadiene, inform TSCA evaluations instead of outdated studies and risk assessments," the ACC writes in a blog post.

In addition to deadlines that the EPA faces for high-priority chemicals already used commercially, the agency will also need to evaluate hundreds of new chemicals this year. Early in the Trump administration, the EPA faced intense pressure from chemical manufacturers to reduce a backlog of new chemicals waiting for approval. The agency addressed the problem by scaling back requests for toxicity data. Pressure from industry to quickly approve new chemicals isn't likely to go away, making it unclear what direction the EPA will take as it tries to protect the public from exposure to toxic chemicals without stifling innovation.



Immigration stays prominent—with an attitude change

by Andrea Widener


President Joe Biden has honed in on immigration reform as one of the keystone issues for his new administration, a move that has clear fans in the science community.

On his first day in office, Biden issued several executive orders halting curbs on immigration instituted by former president Donald J. Trump. One of Biden's orders overturns a ban on visas for people from several majority-Muslim countries. Another preserves the status of "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. Under Trump, agencies had canceled many of the protections for these immigrants and fought in court to keep them from being reinstated.

"The last 4 years under the Trump administration have been a complete nightmare for me and many of the undocumented immigrant communities across the country," says Antonio Tinoco Valencia, a Dreamer who is a chemistry postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. He was "pleasantly shocked" when Biden decided to focus on Dreamers so early in his administration.

We’ve asked the incoming administration to make very clear to international students that they are welcome.
Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

A path to citizenship for Dreamers and other immigrant groups is part of a multitier immigration bill that Biden also proposed. If passed, it would allow those immigrants to be eligible for green cards immediately and be able to apply for citizenship 3 years later. Tinoco Valencia attributes Biden's bill to pressure put on the administration by immigration advocates. "That's what gives me a lot of hope, because he's making it a priority," he says.

The bill also includes several other issues that have been a priority for academic and industry scientists. The proposal would make it easier for people with advanced science, technology, engineering, or math degrees to stay in the US. It would eliminate the annual per-country cap on immigrants, which has created long backlogs for applicants from some countries, most notably India and China. And it would change US immigration laws to refer to an undocumented immigrant as a "noncitizen" rather than an "alien."

One thing the proposal doesn't include is immigration enforcement. Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, says that not trying to address all possible aspects of US immigration could be a good approach. "It's not trying to be the last word," she says. But the bill also doesn't focus narrowly on one topic.

"This will be very difficult to pass in its initial iteration," Feldblum says. "At the same time, I think it's important to note that the bill includes measures that have wide bipartisan support," including the citizenship path for Dreamers, the elimination of country-specific caps on immigration, and a restoration of refugee programs.

There are other areas that scientists would like to see addressed. Higher education advocates, for example, want a national push to encourage international students to come to the US after declines during the Trump administration.

Missing talent
Higher education advocates hope that Joe Biden's immigration actions will help reverse a drop in international students coming to the US. The decrease in F-1 visas, which international students use, has been attributed to Trump-era restrictions; the drop worsened after visa office shutdowns due to COVID-19.

Source: US Department of State.
Note: Data are for fiscal years ending in the year indicated.

"We've asked the incoming administration to make very clear to international students that they are welcome," says Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). "It is a priority of the administration to restore our competitiveness," and the APLU considers international science an important aspect of competitiveness.

Part of supporting international students is confirming support for optional practical training (OPT), a visa extension that allows science students to stay in the US for an additional 3 years after they finish their degrees. Trump had cracked down on OPT recently.

Many people would also like the Biden-Harris administration to reconsider federal scrutiny of scientific collaborations with China. John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says the group has asked Biden to halt the Department of Justice's China Initiative, an effort the Trump administration established to target espionage. Yang would also like the new administration to review cases charged under the initiative to check for anti-Asian bias. Those cases include ones against Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber and University of Kansas chemist Feng "Franklin" Tao.

"The majority of these cases involve failure to disclose ties to Chinese universities, failure to disclose compensation received, or failure to disclose titles received or lectures given," Yang says. "That's a far cry from any actual espionage."

Deborah Altenburg, the APLU's associate vice president for research policy and governmental affairs, says she doesn't think the Biden-Harris administration is going to stop all scrutiny of scientists with connections to China, given concerns by law enforcement and intelligence communities. But she is optimistic that the scrutiny can be more focused on the behavior of individual scientists rather than widespread suspicion of all scientists who work with or come from China.

"There's a hope that there's a little bit of a reset on the rhetoric," Altenburg says.


Persistent Pollutants

PFAS control ranks high on environmental agenda

by Cheryl Hogue


President Joe Biden is promising to address tap water tainted with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These toxic synthetic substances, which don't break down in the environment, are increasingly being detected in rivers and aquifers that supply drinking water across the US.

A handful of states have limits on certain PFAS in drinking water, but no national standards exist.

On former president Donald J. Trump's last full day in office, the Environmental Protection Agency took a first step toward Biden's goal of establishing enforceable, health-based limits for two substances in the PFAS family that are found widely in drinking water—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). They were formerly used as ingredients in foams used to douse fuel fires. PFOA and PFOS are often found in groundwater near military bases, airports, and firefighter training facilities.

Biden's campaign platform called for the EPA to designate some PFAS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law for cleaning up contaminated land and aquifers. In another last-minute action under Trump, the EPA formally asked for public comment on whether the agency should list some PFAS as hazardous substances. Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, faulted this move because it delays the regulatory process for making the designations. If finalized, the listing would require companies and federal facilities to report releases of PFAS into the environment and make them liable for cleanup. It would pave the way for the federal government to clean up PFAS-polluted sites and recoup the costs from polluters.

Michael Regan, Biden's nominee to captain the EPA, has hands-on experience grappling with PFAS in drinking water from his tenure as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. In recent years, researchers discovered that hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians had PFAS in their drinking water.

If confirmed, Regan would oversee ongoing research on the best means for disposal of PFAS waste, such as incineration or novel destruction technologies.

In his campaign platform, Biden also promised to promote safer substitutes for PFAS through federal procurement policies.



Are chlorpyrifos’s days numbered?

by Britt E. Erickson


The Environmental Protection Agency could try again this year to stop the use of the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is prohibited in California and a few other states because of its neurodevelopmental risks to children.

The EPA twice proposed to ban chlorpyrifos under the Obama administration, but it reversed that decision during the first few months of the Trump presidency. The Biden-Harris administration announced on its first day that one of its priorities is to review that reversal. If the EPA decides to pursue a ban again, it would have an easier time than it did 5 years ago.

The agency is unlikely to get pushback from agrochemical maker Corteva Agriscience, as it did in 2015 and 2016, when the company was called Dow AgroSciences. The company, which was once the biggest producer of chlorpyrifos, stopped making the pesticide last year, citing low demand for it. Nonetheless, growers claim that there are few alternatives for some uses of chlorpyrifos, which is still available in the US in generic formulations.

I believe at some point we will start having these chemicals out of our food supply.
Patti Goldman, managing attorney, Earthjustice

Complicating the situation is a Jan. 12 federal court ruling that directs the EPA to remove the pesticide sulfoxaflor, one of the few alternatives to chlorpyrifos for some applications, from the US market while the agency evaluates the risks of that chemical to endangered species. Environmentalists sued the EPA for allowing sulfoxaflor back on the US market in 2019, after the agency banned it in 2015 because of adverse effects on bees.

The EPA is currently reevaluating 22 organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, as part of a standard process to reassess pesticides after 15 years on the market. The agency expects to complete that review by Oct. 1, 2022. In the meantime, a federal court could rule in favor of environmentalists who have repeatedly sued the EPA since 2007 to end the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops. The latest case, filed in 2019, is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The US is seeing an increased prevalence of learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and autism, says Patti Goldman, a managing attorney for Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Studies show that organophosphates can cause these conditions, she says. Goldman is hopeful that someday soon the damage will stop. "I believe at some point we will start having these chemicals out of our food supply."



Get ready for gene-edited pigs and other animals

by Britt E. Erickson
Credit: Shutterstock
Pork producers are hoping the US Department of Agriculture will make it easier for them to get genetically modified pigs onto the US food market.


It could be a lot easier for livestock producers to get genetically modified animals approved for food consumption this year. On the last full day of Donald J. Trump's presidency, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Agriculture to shift oversight of biotech animals from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA.

The Trump administration's last-minute push to transfer authority over genetically engineered animals was orchestrated by the White House with buy-in from the HHS, which is the FDA's parent agency. But top officials at the FDA are not in favor of the move. In a Jan. 19 tweet, then–FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn wrote, "FDA does not support the Memorandum of Understanding that @HHSGov signed with @USDA announced today." He went on to say that "FDA remains undeterred in our steadfast commitment to ensure that animal agricultural biotechnology products undergo independent and science and risk-based evaluation by our career experts."

Our livestock producers need all the tools in the toolbox to help protect against animal diseases and continue to meet the challenge of feeding everyone now and into the future.
Sonny Perdue, US Department of Agriculture secretary under the Trump administration

President Joe Biden's nominee for the top spot at the USDA, Tom Vilsack, was a strong proponent of biotechnology when he served as USDA secretary under the Obama administration. Under his leadership, the USDA sped up the approval of numerous genetically modified crops. The same could happen with genetically modified animals used for food if Vilsack is confirmed by the Senate.

"Our livestock producers need all the tools in the toolbox to help protect against animal diseases and continue to meet the challenge of feeding everyone now and into the future," Sonny Perdue, USDA secretary under Trump, said in a statement in December, when the USDA first proposed transferring the authority over biotech animals from the FDA to the USDA. "If we do not put these safe biotechnology advances to work here at home, our competitors in other nations will," he said.

It is unclear how much the FDA is willing to fight to regain oversight of genetically modified animals. The transfer of authority was largely the result of pressure from pork producers, who are hoping to raise hogs that are genetically modified to resist certain diseases currently wreaking havoc on the industry.

Over the past decade, the FDA has approved only a handful of genetically modified animals, most of which are for producing biological drugs. In December, the agency approved the first genetically modified animal for both human food consumption and possible biomedical uses—pigs engineered without the sugar galactose-α-1,3-galactose, which causes allergic reactions in some people.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), an industry group, claims that the FDA has dragged its feet for the past 2 years on the development of gene-edited livestock. "We are disappointed that the FDA continues to engage in delay tactics that are holding back U.S. agriculture," hog farmer Howard "A. V." Roth, president of the NPPC, says in comments regarding the USDA's proposed rule.


Industrial Safety

Beleaguered Chemical Safety Board could get more support

by Jyllian Kemsley
Credit: Courtesy of the US Chemical Safety Board
The Chemical Safety Board is investigating a fatal explosion at Optima Chemical's Belle, West Virginia, facility in December.


The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB)—the independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents—could fare better under President Joe Biden than it did under former president Donald J. Trump.

Trump proposed defunding the CSB several times, although Congress maintained the agency's annual budget at $12 million.

Plus, the number of board members dwindled under Trump. Members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve 5-year terms. As board members' terms expired during Trump's tenure, he nominated only one person to the board—current chair Katherine Lemos, who started her term in April.

The CSB's role in investigating industrial chemical accidents that affect surrounding communities could position it for greater standing in the Biden-Harris administration, which is prioritizing environmental justice as part of racial equity. Whether the CSB gets greater support remains to be seen—so far, the administration has not publicly indicated its views of the CSB.

Safety experts, workers, and communities affected by industrial incidents laud the CSB's investigation reports and videos, while companies and regulators are less welcoming and frequently do not follow through on CSB recommendations. Meanwhile, the agency has a work backlog and a shortage of employees.

As of C&EN's deadline, the CSB's website listed 18 open investigations. The agency deployed a team in December to investigate a fatal incident at an Optima Chemical facility operated on a Chemours site in Belle, West Virginia. According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, preliminary information suggested that a 4,500 L dryer overpressurized and exploded, killing one worker and injuring two others.

The agency closed one investigation in fiscal 2020.

The board suffered from personnel shortages throughout the Trump administration and currently has 12 investigators, down from a former force of 20. At the same time, it recently added two noninvestigator staffers—Bruce Walker as a senior adviser focusing on policy and outreach, and David LaCerte as senior adviser and executive counsel. But hiring LaCerte was controversial—his previous work at the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs led to an investigation that concluded he "engaged in questionable organizational, hiring, and pay practices that appear to have contributed to an environment with little accountability."



Chemical companies hope for tariff relief

by Alexander H. Tullo
Credit: David Tonelson/Shutterstock
Chemical makers hope that Joe Biden will ease Donald J. Trump's tariffs.


Unlike his last several predecessors, former president Donald J. Trump will be remembered as an aggressive protectionist who unilaterally imposed tariffs and instigated retaliation from US trading partners.

His most notable action in this area of policy was the trade war with China, in which the US established tariffs on more than $350 billion of imported goods in 2018 and 2019. According to the Tax Foundation, a research organization that advocates for simpler tax policy, the Chinese government reciprocated with tariffs on more than $100 billion of US goods.

Caught in the middle were US chemical companies. They faced duties on imports from China, sometimes on critical raw materials that weren't made elsewhere. They also took a hit with Chinese levies on big US exports like polyethylene.

The Biden administration has the opportunity to increase transparency and eliminate excessive punitive tariffs that, over time, have hindered growth and caused disruption and shortages to manufacturing supply chains.
Robert F. Helminiak, vice president of legal and government relations, Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates

The Biden-Harris administration has promised to be tough on trade and issues such as intellectual property theft. But President Joe Biden has also signaled a preference for more moderation and openness to international cooperation.

Chemical companies hope so.

In December, the leading US chemical industry trade group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), welcomed the nomination of Biden's trade representative, lawyer Katherine Tai. "We look forward to working with Ms. Tai, once confirmed, to reduce trading costs, enhance manufacturing competitiveness, and establish a more predictable trading environment for the United States and our closest trading partners," the ACC says in a statement. As of C&EN's deadline, Tai was awaiting Senate confirmation of her appointment.

Another US trade group, the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA), has spent the past couple of years lobbying for exemptions to the levies against Chinese chemical imports, many of which were necessary intermediates for US specialty chemical makers.

"The Biden administration has the opportunity to increase transparency and eliminate excessive punitive tariffs that, over time, have hindered growth and caused disruption and shortages to manufacturing supply chains," Robert F. Helminiak, SOCMA's vice president of legal and government relations, says in an email to C&EN.

Helminiak says that SOCMA supports multilateral trade agreements as well as predictability in trade policy. The group also hopes that the new administration will reopen the process for granting exclusions to the Chinese tariffs.



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