Chemical Safety Board head quizzed by skeptical US Congress members

October 12, 2021

Last month during an Energy and Commerce hearing, Congressman Peters talked to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s CEO about their role in updating the EPA’s risk management rules that keep employees using hazardous substances safe at work.

Read more about the hearing and their conversation in this October 6th piece by Chemical and Engineering News, posted below:

Chemical Safety Board head quizzed by skeptical US Congress members

By Jeff Johnson

October 6th, 2021

Support mixed with criticism confronted the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) at an oversight hearing of the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on Sept. 29. The House hearing came as three CSB nominees await a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

Opposite the committee members was the sole CSB member, chairperson Katherine Lemos. For more than a year, the CSB has operated with four members short of its full complement of five.

The current state of affairs is in large part a consequence of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. As CSB members’ terms expired, Trump appointed no new members except for Lemos, keeping the board barely alive. He also tried three times to defund CSB. He was rebuffed by Congress, though Congress, also bears a share of responsibility for the fact that the CSB’s budget hasn’t increased in years.

Judging from the 2 h hearing, the CSB still has congressional support, particularly from members whose districts hold industrial facilities. However, some members voiced doubt that, without an overhaul, the board could not carry out its mission. The CSB is tasked to investigate complex accidents involving chemicals, discover and report the cause, and recommend solutions for manufacturing operations and regulatory oversight.

The board is independent from other federal agencies and has no regulatory authority. It can only recommend manufacturing and regulatory safety improvements and must justify those recommendations. Despite that, its reports can carry great weight and lead to significant changes as well as negative publicity for the other organizations involved.

Companies and regulatory agencies have sometimes challenged, slowed, and even blocked CSB investigations. The board has also been scrutinized several times by Congress for allegations of infighting and mismanagement. Those problems, plus Trump’s actions, have made it difficult for the CSB to recruit new investigators and other staff, several people familiar with the board say.

At the hearing, committee members disagreed on the primary role of the board. Democrats generally backed more aggressive investigations and recommendations, while Republicans urged limiting CBS’s role. All, however, criticized the length of time it takes the CSB to complete investigations and issue reports. The CSB currently has 18 outstanding investigations, some from incidents that occurred as much as 5 years ago.

Republican committee members, particularly Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) and Morgan Griffith (VA), claimed the views of investigators and board members have led to biased recommendations, but they provided no examples. They said they would like to see the CSB limit its recommendations to the root cause of an accident and let companies and regulators determine the solutions.

In contrast, committee chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) urged the CSB to reach out to regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Peters specifically told Lemos to promote CSB recommendations as the agencies update their process safety and risk management rules.

Lemos said CSB has recently reiterated its past regulatory recommendations to the EPA and OSHA, emphasizing the need to regulate reactive chemicals and require consideration of inherently safer designs—systems that prevent hazards rather than manage them—for manufacturing.

She also pledged greater transparency and speed in closing investigations, adding that the CSB is drafting documentation to clarify and codify how its recommendations are developed.

Lemos stressed that the board is trying to close investigations more quickly and said four draft reports would be released by the end of the year for incidents at Sunoco Logistics, Didion Milling, Biolab Conyers, and Loy Lange Box Company. Nine workers died in these accidents. She said another six investigation reports would be completed next year.

However, while CSB closed two investigations the week before the hearing, Lemos did not take public comments at the meeting announcing the reports, and delayed releasing the final reports.

House Committee members noted that the CSB is required by statute to complete reports within a year of accidents. Lemos said that is impossible for a major accident or investigation. Instead, she proposed relying on shorter reports, which the CSB has attempted at times. She noted that the National Transportation Safety Board takes an average of 2.5 years to complete a full report and relies instead on safety bulletins and a range of other devices short of a full report.

The NTSB investigates air and other transportation accidents and has served as a model for the CSB. Both boards are independent non-regulatory agencies that issue regulatory and operational investigations. But the CSB currently has less than 40 staff and a $12 million annual budget, while the NTSB is 10 times as large in both budget and personnel. And no politician recommends defunding the group that investigates civilian air and other transportation-related disasters.

The CSB currently has 14 investigators, down a half-dozen from earlier years. At the agency’s lowest ebb, which was in 2019 as Lemos was nominated to the board, it had only 8 investigators, she said at the hearing. Her goal is to have the staff up to 61 people by the end of fiscal year 2023.

Lemos told the committee that current funding is inadequate to fully investigate the nation’s industrial accidents. The CSB receives 20,000–30,000 reports of US accidents a year that could qualify for CSB deployment, she said. About 88 of those would merit a full CSB investigation. From that, investigators deploy to a handful of sites.

None of the committee members pledged to increase the CSB’s budget.

Several members voiced support for the three nominees waiting for confirmation. Two of the nominees—Stephen Owens and Silvia Johnson—were cleared by Senate committee on a voice vote. But Jennifer Saas, a toxicologist with the Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental group, was opposed by the top Republicans on the committee and the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade association. The committee sent her nomination to the full Senate after a tie vote.



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