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Industrial Safety

Trump should appoint Chemical Safety Board chair, legislators and industry representatives say

Board currently has three of five members

by Jeff Johnson
November 26, 2018

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Credit: Chemical Safety Board
The Chemical Safety Board is currently investigating a fire that started when a reactor pressure relief system released ethylene vapor that then ignited at a Kuraray plant in Texas. The ignition source was a welding machine operating from a pickup truck located under the relief valve, CSB said in a May 19 investigation update.

A mix of chemical industry representatives and Republican leaders in Congress are calling for the White House to appoint a chairperson to lead the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The board, which investigates chemically related industrial accidents, has been without an appointed chair since last June, when then-chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland resigned.

The five members of the CSB are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The board was one member down when Sutherland left and consequently has been operating with only three members. In the interim, board member Kristen Kulinowski is serving as executive.

Twice President Donald Trump has recommended eliminating the board. However, the CSB retains broad bipartisan support from most members of Congress, who have continued its funding. The CSB also enjoys support from industry, says the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the US chemical industry’s main trade group.

“A fully functioning CSB plays an important role in helping to safeguard chemical facilities,” ACC says. “ACC’s member companies find considerable value in the CSB’s work—especially its reports and materials generated as part of its investigations. The results and recommendations from effective investigations have benefited ACC, its members, and the public.”

However, some in Congress see a new chair appointment as a way to overhaul the board. For four years, the House Oversight Committee has investigated the board amid allegations of mismanagement and other problems at the small independent agency. In a letter to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, House of Representative Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) urged the president to fill the top slot and said the vacancy provided a “crucial opportunity to reverse the CSB’s troubled course.”

A fully functioning CSB plays an important role in helping to safeguard chemical facilities.
American Chemistry Council

In a similar letter, Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and committee member Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) also criticized CSB management and urged Trump to appointment as chair someone from outside the agency with experience operating industrial facilities and a long record of handling chemicals safety.

Interim leader Kulinowski defends the agency, saying the transition as Sutherland left the board was “seamless.”

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Since June, “We’ve been fully operational,” Kulinowski says. “We have a full quorum of members and have been able to do all we need to do.”

But board members are appointed for five-year terms. Manuel “Manny” Ehrlich’s term ends in a year, in December 2019. Rick Engler’s term ends in February 2020. Kulinowski’s ends in August 2020. “So, looking forward, we see a need for additional board members. However, we have heard nothing from the White House,” Kulinowski says.

In the midst of this leadership uncertainty, CSB is attempting to hire this fiscal year eight to 11 new accident investigators, doubling the number of investigators on staff.

“I was surprised at the applicant pool,” Kulinowski says. “We had some 220 applicants. It seems that despite the continuous call for CSB’s elimination, the support of Congress has helped potential employees see that CSB has a strong future.”

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