Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia on June 21, 2019. CSB investigated the explosion.

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia on June 21, 2019. CSB investigated the explosion. Matt Rourke / AP file photo

Chemical Safety Board is ‘Withering Away,’ Says Environmental Group 

The organization hopes the Biden administration will do more to protect workers and communities with industrial plants, but the agency says it's fully engaged in its mission. 

The small independent agency that investigates industrial chemical incidents and hazards is “withering away,” according to an environmental nonprofit, which hopes the incoming Biden administration makes it more of a priority. 

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released a report on Thursday, first shared with Government Executive, about how the Chemical Safety Board has been declining under the Trump administration. This was one of the agencies President Trump proposed to cut in his first budget request in 2017, which led to employees saying they felt “pressured” to give it higher Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey ratings, so Congress would not eliminate it (the chairperson at the time disputed that and said the ratings were due to management improvements). Trump proposed to zero out the agency’s funding in the subsequent years of his administration, but Congress never acted on the plan. 

“Fiscal year 2020 appears to be the first in the agency’s 23-year history when no new safety recommendations were issued, compared to a prior average of about 38 per year since the agency was established,” said PEER. “Issuing safety recommendations to federal regulatory agencies is one of the three enumerated statutory duties of the CSB under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.” 

The organization also said CSB “now omits ‘protecting workers’ from the agency’s mission statement” and only completed and issued one report during 2020. However, the chair did request an internal investigation to make sure the agency is complying with the president’s executive order that limits certain types of diversity and inclusion training for federal employees, PEER noted.  

Vacancies have been another problem at the agency, dating back several years. Katherine Lemos, director for Northrop Grumman Corp.’s aerospace sector, was confirmed as chairperson of the CSB in March and is the only member of the board that should have five members. Lemos is the only person Trump has appointed to the board and the other members’ terms expired. PEER criticized Lemos and her recently hired senior adviser, Bruce Walker, a former Northrop Grumman Corp. vice president, for their lack of relevant experience. 

The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general, which has jurisdiction over CSB, reported in July that many of the management challenges “lie outside of the CSB’s control” since the president needs to nominate and the Senate needs to confirm more members. The watchdog noted that the law “leaves open whether a single board member may constitute a quorum,” which is needed for oversight, budgeting, planning matters and approval of investigations. However, even if that’s allowed, having only one member “impairs the CSB mission for reasons of both workload management and separation of duties.” The IG also said that CSB needed to amend its existing practices, so it could fully conduct investigations during the novel coronavirus pandemic.  

It should be noted that some of the agency issues predate 2020 and Trump, such as leadership scandals that led to congressional hearings.

The agency “is on life-support,” and although the United States is one of the top producers of chemicals in the world, “it has no effective oversight agency to monitor industrial accidents and improve plant safety,” PEER told Government Executive. “We hope the Biden administration makes reinvigorating the CSB a top priority” in order to protect workers’ lives and the communities that have chemical plants.  

Several attorneys told Bloomberg News last month that they expect the new administration “to pay more attention than the Trump administration to the concerns of people with higher-than-average chemical exposures as it decides whether those chemicals should be regulated.” 

The agency disputed there was a language change in the mission statement and the characterizations of the report, saying in fiscal 2020 it launched seven deployments to incident sites, made progress on reducing its backlog of investigations, hired six chemical incident investigators and released three “factual updates” on ongoing investigations. 

“Some of our work was certainly delayed due to COVID and travel restrictions but we have ensured that our investigations are moving forward and that investigative activities are continuing on all fronts,” a CSB spokesperson told Government Executive. “We certainly continue to take our mission very seriously and work diligently to meet our mission and objectives.