Federal agencies

EPA OIG report examines short-staffed Chemical Safety Board’s management challenges

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Washington — Lacking a quorum and without clear policy on board member responsibilities amid the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, the Chemical Safety Board faces multiple management challenges “that will impede the ability of the CSB to function effectively,” the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General states in a new report, issued July 6.

Frequently facing questions about its future and long a target for elimination under the Trump administration, the agency has operated with just one of its five board seats filled since Kristen Kulinowski stepped down May 1, three months before her five-year term was set to expire. Kulinowski served as interim executive authority until the Senate confirmed Katherine Lemos as CSB chair and CEO on March 23. The report is addressed to Lemos, who is not required to provide a written response.

New board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. However, in the report, EPA OIG cites the agency’s recent administrative crawl as grounds for concern, writing that “based on the time taken to approve previous nominees, it is unlikely that even one new member, let alone four, will be selected, nominated and confirmed in the near term.”

As an example, EPA OIG states that nine months passed between Lemos’ July 2019 nomination and her Senate confirmation. Further, previous board members awaited confirmation for an average of 10-and-a-half months following nomination – a period that excludes the time needed to first identify them as a qualified candidate.

The report spotlights the “elevated urgency” CSB encounters in adding new members.

“A single board member is unlikely to have all the technical qualifications or time to perform the required board duties, and CSB staff cannot assume board-specific duties,” the report states. “Therefore, even if a single member is permitted to form a quorum, the CSB’s work will be impaired.”

Asked during the public comment portion of an April 29 CSB business meeting about a timetable for adding new members and protocol for functioning with only one board seat filled, Lemos said the comment would be placed on the meeting record for response.

Other challenges EPA OIG identified include a lack of guidance on board member responsibilities, as well as “maintaining safe and effective operations” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although CSB has not suspended deployments to chemical incidents as a result of the pandemic, it plans to limit future deployments to “high-consequence incidents” and those more local.

 

The report also cites an investigative staffing shortage, a topic Kulinowski addressed during the April business meeting. Although the shortage prompted the agency to temporarily halt two investigations, Kulinowski said CSB is looking to hire at least 10 more investigators and was vetting candidates.

The terms of former CSB members Manuel Ehrlich and Rick Engler ended in December and February, respectively. Before Ehrlich’s departure, CSB had been operating with three of its five seats filled – and without a public chairperson – since Vanessa A. Sutherland resigned from the top post in June 2018.

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