For Immediate Release: Thursday, December 17, 2020
Contact: Kirsten Stade email@example.com
Federal Industrial Safety Agency Withering Away
Investigator Ranks and Recommendations Plummet under Absentee Chair
Washington, DC — The federal agency charged with investigating and preventing industrial explosions, fires, and other chemical accidents is fully funded but producing less than ever, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). For the first time, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) now omits “protecting workers” from the agency’s mission statement.
The CSB has a $12 million annual budget but, according to its official performance report, during the past fiscal year it has:
- “Completed and issued a report on one investigation”
- “Issued 0 safety recommendations”
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. 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.
“To say that the CSB is underperforming would be an understatement,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that Congress has three times ignored President Trump’s proposal to zero out the CSB, and fully funded its annual budget. “As president, Trump has not succeeded in eliminating the CSB but he has succeeded in neutering it.”
The one completed investigation this past FY stands in contrast to a backlog of 18 unfinished investigations, including some dating back three years. The CSB’s output has been degraded in large part due to a sharp decline in investigators. Today, CSB has only 11 investigators, down from 20 just five years earlier, despite a budget which is $1 million bigger today.
Trump appointed Katherine Lemos, the only remaining member on the five-member CSB governing board, to serve as its Chair despite her lack of any chemical industry experience. She, in turn, recently hired a former Northrop Grumman Corp. lobbyist, Bruce Walker, to serve as her “senior adviser” despite his lack of any apparent background in chemical safety. The agency describes his duties as “interfacing with stakeholders” to achieve the nebulous goal of “improving the flexibility of interagency interactions around multi-jurisdictional incidents.”
In contrast to its meager investigatory output, Lemos did request an internal investigation to ensure CSB compliance with Trump’s order to end staff training on diversity and inclusiveness.
Every year, the U.S. suffers more than 1,000 serious industrial chemical accidents but very few are investigated. As a consequence, the industrial accident risk in the U.S. is among the highest in the developed world. Recently, PEER sued CSB to force it to implement a long-neglected duty to report on emissions released into communities by chemical accidents. While the suit was successful, the regulation CSB ultimately approved was so anemic as to be largely useless.
“At a time when the CSB is needed more than ever, this federal watchdog is taking a nap,” added Dinerstein, who has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking Lemos’ travel expenses to maintain her San Diego residence, where there are no CSB assets. “We will be asking President Biden to put the CSB back to work protecting workers’ lives and the communities hosting these industrial plants.”