“We think problems are in fact opportunities.”
That positive, hopeful cliché was oft repeated by new US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) members Sylvia Johnson and Steve Owens in a lengthy interview with C&EN. Looking at where the CSB is now and where the two hope to take it, Johnson and Owens have a bonanza of new opportunities.
Their goal is to turn around the small agency, which investigates significant chemical-related accidents, and restore it to its former authority. Safety experts and regulators, members of Congress, and even accident-prone companies once considered it to be the worldwide gold standard in conducting industrial accident investigations. Its reports and animated videos are valued by industry, regulatory authorities, and communities worldwide.
But the agency has been struggling for a while. For more than a year, the CSB has not initiated a new accident investigation. It has a backlog of 17 incomplete investigations; one is 6 years old. It also has merely nine dedicated incident investigators—the heart of the agency—less than half its past high. The total number of staff is 29, including Johnson and Owens. The agency employed more than 40 people before the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who tried three times to eliminate it but was thwarted by Congress. The board lacks three of five board members. Staff morale has tanked, according to Johnson, Owens, and a host of former staff.
The problems are supported by a Sept. 7 report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which has oversight authority over the CSB. The 17-page report incorporates the results of a staff survey conducted by the OIG. Staff laid much of the blame for the turmoil on top management and bureaucratic stumbling blocks established by those leaders.
“Our game plan is to bring on enough new investigators to clear up the backlog of reports and be able to do new incident investigations,” Johnson says. “You know, at one time the agency had 24 investigators, and we’d like to see that again.”
They both recognize the difficulty in clearing the backlog. Accident investigations are complicated and often require great expertise, experience, and resources. And several of the unfinished reports involve investigations that were led by people who left the agency. Whether those reports can be completed may depend on the quality of the initial investigation, the board members say. It would be extremely difficult to redo the investigations even if the CSB could hire the necessary staff.
Also, the CSB faces high hurdles to replace experienced staff. Hiring and training new workers is difficult in today’s competitive job market, Owens says. The CSB, he adds, has found it difficult to match industry salaries and to comply with some federal hiring requirements. It’s also particularly hard to attract staff to an agency after a former president tried to completely cut its budget.
“Does anyone really want to go to work at an agency that may not be in existence in a few years?” Owens asks.
But with the change in presidential administration, Johnson and Owens think they have a good chance to rejuvenate the board, hire new staff, and maybe even lure back some former staff that fled the agency.
“We need to show staff they are valued and that recent support from the Biden administration will continue,” Johnson says.
That’s a hard argument to make when considering the board’s history. It was established in 1998 as a nonregulatory authority independent of other federal agencies. Its primary role is to find root causes of chemical-related incidents and to recommend and publicize corrections to avoid future tragedies. It was created after the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, both regulatory agencies, failed to complete investigations in a thorough and timely manner.
The CSB’s independence is its strength. It can go where its investigators take it—whether they look into mechanics, human factors, or management decisions. Its most fervent supporters are people who live near and work in plants, and the members of Congress who represent them. The 105 accidents it has investigated so far have usually taken one or more lives, including those of workers and bystanders. They have included large explosions that destroyed communities as well as small releases in labs and isolated work sites. Few are real “accidents”; in most cases, company officials ignored problems or rushed corrections. CSB reports revealing such situations have made the responsible companies, regulators, lab operators, and others quite uncomfortable.
Congress has kept the agency’s budget small, barely $12 million per year. In the US, at least an accident per week could qualify for a CSB investigation, but because of staff and funding shortfalls, the CSB rarely investigates more than a handful annually. During the past 2 years, for instance, the CSB learned of 153 incidents that included 24 fatalities and could have qualified for investigations, according to the OIG.
Now is not the first time the CSB’s management has been called out for poor performance, but the agency’s performance may be at an all-time low.
Owens and Johnson joined the board in February. Before they arrived, the board was run by a single person, Katherine Lemos, the only member appointed by Trump. She took charge in 2020 as previous board members’ terms expired. She brought in her own staff and ran a tightly controlled, top-down organization, according to several current and former CSB staff and the OIG report. Among changes, she stopped allowing outside comments at public board meetings and stopped issuing investigation status updates.
Owens and Johnson say Lemos refused to share authority, and they clashed with her over the board’s direction and treatment of staff. Lemos limited Johnson and Owens to voting on incident reports and recommendations and advocating for the agency. She blocked them from budget decisions and discouraged them from meeting directly with CSB staff, they say and the OIG report confirms.
“This was intolerable,” Owens says. Earlier this year, he and Johnson wanted to use an upcoming public meeting to force Lemos to explain and justify the restrictions; they wanted to vote on her interpretation of their authority. Then on a Friday in June, before the scheduled meeting and with no notice, Lemos and her top assistant resigned. Several CSB directors and top staff she had appointed—including a managing director, general counsel, and chief information officer—also exited the agency. Lemos did not respond to emails from C&EN seeking her view on the situation.
Since Lemos left, Johnson and Owens have begun listening sessions to hear the concerns of current and former staff and former board members. They have encouraged staff to exchange views with them and one another. Johnson and Owens have also reinstated comments at board meetings and plan to include frequent status reports.
They say President Joe Biden and his administration are committed to the board and note that he has nominated four new members—Johnson, Owens, Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Jennifer Sass, and Santa Clara University law professor Catherine J. K. Sandoval. Biden and Congress also increased the CSB’s annual budget to an all-time high of $13.4 million for fiscal 2022. Biden’s 2023 request for $14.4 million is pending congressional action. The Senate has dropped Sass’s nomination, while Sandoval awaits confirmation.
Johnson and Owens hope to complete five stalled investigations by the end of this year and the rest in 2023. It is an ambitious goal, according to people familiar with the board and how quickly it has been able to complete investigations even before recent years. The board members plan to hire new staff and reinstate an intern program that served as a hiring pipeline. And, Johnson adds, if some who left the agency returned, “it would be lovely; their experience would be invaluable.”
The OIG report found that current CSB staff appreciate the CSB’s mission and their peers. Johnson and Owens say that when they’ve spoken with staff, they’ve been surprised at how many said a position at the CSB was a “dream job”—at least when they began. What staff did not like was the change to authoritarian leadership that told them to follow orders and made them feel undervalued.
“We have spent a lot of time trying to assure them that this isn’t the case anymore,” Owens says. “We are not only listening to people but trying to empower them to be able to do their jobs better.”
Johnson acknowledges the multitude of challenges the CSB faces. But, she insists, “we also have a lot of opportunities to get things right and restore the agency.”
Jeff Johnson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.