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Industrial Safety

US Chemical Safety Board closer to getting 3 more members

Panel faces backlog of accident investigations

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
August 2, 2021

Photo shows a tanker car on railroad tracks in the foreground and an industrial building in the background with smoke pouring out of it.
Credit: Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom
The CSB investigated this accident at specialty chemical maker KMCO in 2019 that killed one worker and seriously burned two others.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) moved a step closer to becoming fully functional July 29 as a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee considered three presidential nominees for the panel. Since April 2020, the five-seat board has operated with a single member.

The board’s primary responsibility is to investigate significant chemical accidents, determine their root cause, and make operational, regulatory, and other recommendations to avoid similar incidents in the future. It makes only nonbinding recommendations.

But over the last 18 months, the CSB has only begun one investigation and finalized a single accident report. It now has a backlog of 19 unfinished investigations, the largest in its history.

The board has faced challenges in recent years. Former president Donald J. Trump tried three times to defund it. Each time, Congress restored money. But such presidential opposition—along with a shrinking staff and other CSB difficulties—made it tough for the board to meet its statutory responsibilities or recruit new employees. The number of its accident investigators, a key to the CSB’s past success, has dwindled to about 10, half its standard complement.

CSB supporters hope President Joe Biden’s nominees help put the board back on track.

Biden’s nominees are Sylvia Johnson, an epidemiologist with labor union experience; Stephen Owens, an attorney and former federal and Arizona regulator who focused on environmental, safety, and health issues; and Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist and toxicologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit organization.

The three have chemical science, human health, and regulatory expertise. However, they lack direct experience working for the chemical industry. Historically, CSB members often were former industry employees with engineering backgrounds.

The nominees are all opposed by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the major trade association of US chemical manufacturers. The ACC charges that they “lack the critical and necessary background to meet the mission of the CSB.” The group says CSB members must have “considerable knowledge of the chemical manufacturing environment, including direct process safety experience, to understand plant systems, equipment and procedures.”

At the hearing, subcommittee chair Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) stressed the nominees’ chemical and science backgrounds.

Johnson is a lobbyist for the National Education Association, a teacher’s union. She previously worked for the United Auto Workers health and safety department, conducting work-related health studies and hazard assessments, according to her testimony. She also investigated accidents involving chemical, biological, or physical exposures to workers.

Owens, a corporate attorney, is a former US Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator who managed regulatory programs for chemicals and pesticides during the Obama administration. He directed the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and is a former member of the EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee and its Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. He also led the Environmental Council of the States, a national association of state environmental agency directors. Owens has consulted with chemical companies on compliance issues, according to his testimony.

Sass is a part-time faculty member at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and a board member of the US National Toxicology Program. She is a frequent congressional, community, and industry adviser on chemical matters and toxicology science.

The next steps in the confirmation process are unclear. Merkley gave the nominees until the end of August to respond in writing to questions he anticipates some senators will raise. The entire US Senate must vote to confirm the nominees before they can join the CSB.

Meanwhile, hours after the Senate hearing adjourned, CSB chair Katherine Lemos presided over an online public meeting. Lemos and the CSB administrative staff, in a closely scripted discussion, announced the completion and publication of a half-dozen pending recommendations for states, companies, and trade associations that rose from accident investigations. CSB also released a safety video about a fatal accident at the Aghorn pumping station in Texas.

A week after Lemos, a Trump appointee, became chair of the CSB in April 2020, she found herself working alone when the only other board member, Kristen Kulinowski, announced her departure.

Lemos holds a PhD in social psychology and has a background in aviation, previously working at the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, according to her resume. Although she has no chemical sector experience, industry raised no objections during her confirmation.



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