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Industrial Safety

US senate discuss Chemical Safety Board with nominees

Hearing focuses on agency shortcomings

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
November 21, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 42

Photo shows a tanker car on railroad tracksin the foreground and smoke pouring out of an industrial facility in the background.
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 current state and future goals of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board became the focus of a Nov. 17 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing called ostensibly to consider two board nominees.

Steve Owens has been nominated for CSB chair and Catherine J.K. Sandoval for a member slot. Owens has been a board member since February but was recently nominated to chair the board, and Sandoval was nominated in June.

For the past 2 years, the board has had only 1–2 of what should be 5 members. Although the senators supported the CSB’s role in investigating accidents, they quizzed Owens and Sandoval over delays in investigations and reports, as well as other shortcomings.

Owens acknowledged the problems while stressing recent improvements. He noted that, after a 10-month gap, the CSB recently completed three long-delayed reports. He also promised that three more reports would be out by year’s end.

Senators also criticized Owens for staff attrition, noting staff is half of what it was a decade ago. In response, Owens pointed to a greater push for staffing and new hires that include a new chief information officer, other cybersecurity and information technology experts, an additional investigator, and other specialists. He said more hires are in the works.

Sandoval, a law professor, underscored the importance of the CSB’s work for communities, families, workers, and the environment and economy. She said she would bring to the CSB more than 30 years of regulatory and legal experience.

A former commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission and former undersecretary and staff director of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, Sandoval stressed her experience in collaborative response to chemical incidents and development of safety measures. She singled out her role as a commissioner responding to a natural gas leak at a storage facility near Los Angeles in 2015—the largest such leak in US history.



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