In February, it came to light that the Trump administration had plans to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), but once again, Congress has resisted the call. Last month, the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee proposed $12 million to fund the Board – that’s $1 million more than the previous year. Then, earlier this month, the Senate joined the lower chamber, passing a budget equivalent to last year’s. This marks the second year in a row that Congress stepped in to save the CSB.
On the face of it, this is good news for advocates who want to mitigate the disastrous consequences of irresponsible chemical usage and storage. “The U.S. averages more than 1,000 major industrial chemical accidents every year,” said Jeff Ruch, of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Eliminating any federal capacity to learn the causes of potentially catastrophic industrial accidents would be unwise in the extreme.”
The Board was created in the 1990s in order to investigate industry accidents involving chemicals and to propose preventative measures. It has been involved in a number of major investigations, including those pertaining to the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon spill and the chemical spill that affected thousands of West Virginia residents.
The Administration’s Rationale
When arguing for the CSB’s elimination last year, the government said: “While CSB has done some outstanding work on its investigations, more often than not, its overlap with other agency investigative authorities has generated unhelpful friction.” The administration continued, “In recent years, CSB’s recommendations have also been focused on the need for greater regulation of industry, which has frustrated both regulators and industry.”
Maintaining Integrity and the Appearance of Objectivity
The Board has been painted as an independent agency meant to intervene in chemical-related incidents and make policy proposals that touch on the root causes of these events. As noted by Jordan Barab, in an article on Today’s Workplace, the CSB may be undermining its reputation as an objective science-based institution. A joint statement issued by the Board and the Chlorine Institute reads more or less as an advertisement for CI. It outlines all the positive changes that have been made by the Institute.
This may not seem worrisome at first glance, but when you consider the fact that the Board is supposed to be an independent agency, a joint statement seems a little strange. It is one thing, writes Barab, to praise a company for good behavior, but usually, such praise is related to a specific investigation regarding a particular event. Blanket praise of a company is something else entirely. What happens when CI falters? Will this joint statement affect the Board’s ability to conduct a neutral investigation? Even if the CSB can do its job, will it appear as if it has no objectivity?
It is perhaps no surprise that the CSB has joined forces with a representative from the industry it is supposed to regulate. Over the last several decades, since its founding in the 90s, the Board has been marred by internal tensions between management and employees. According to a Congressional committee report, employees have been forced to endure an “abusive, toxic and hostile” workplace environment. This may be due to the lack of a union at the Board, which is one of the only federal agencies without union representation. The EPA, OSHA and NTSB all have some type of union to represent the employees, but that’s because they have over 100 employees. The CSB has only 41 workers. Such an environment has led to a less effective CSB, which has been known to drag its feet when producing reports.
Indeed, the Board has undergone personnel changes in the past month, with the resigning of the CSB chair, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, who gave no rationale for her decision. In a statement, she said: “I am saddened to leave the wonderful mission and incredible work of the CSB.” She continued, “We are the only agency conducting independent, comprehensive root cause chemical incident investigations.”
Now, the CSB, which is supposed to have five board members, has only three. Sutherland joined the Board in 2015, following the ousting of Rafael Moure-Eraso, who was accused of gross mismanagement. Sutherland focused on the many backlogged investigations. According to Donald S. Holmstrom, former director of the Western Regional Office, under Sutherland’s guidance, investigators have been forced to cut corners, focusing on immediate environmental causes while ignoring systemic, cultural influences. Even as she leaves her post, the agency has 10 investigations yet to be conducted.