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Chemical Safety Board nominees discuss qualifications, agency struggles during Senate hearing

Photo: Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee

Washington — Amid concerns from stakeholders – including a trade association representing chemical manufacturers – a trio of Chemical Safety Board nominees defended their qualifications during a July 29 confirmation hearing before the Senate Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee.

Sylvia Johnson, Steve Owens and Jennifer Sass – who were nominated April 28 by President Joe Biden – were asked about reported agency management and staffing issues that have contributed to an investigative backlog. However, they mainly navigated questions related to their work experience, prompted in part by a July 27 letter from American Chemistry Council President and CEO Chris Jahn to Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), the respective chair and ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

In the letter, Jahn contends that although the nominees are “accomplished in their own respective fields,” they “lack the critical and necessary background to meet the mission of the CSB.”

He adds: “We urge the committee to reconsider these nominations and recommend the administration seek appropriately qualified candidates who possess the process safety experience needed to fulfill the CSB’s mandate.”

Since May 1, 2020, CSB has carried on with only one of its five board seats filled.

Asked by subcommittee ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) whether the criticism from ACC is fair, Johnson, who heads the National Education Association’s government relations department, touted her experience as an occupational epidemiologist in the United Auto Workers’ health and safety department.

“I worked with labor and management,” Johnson said. “I have investigated chemical accidents. I have trained workers on how to remain safe from chemicals, how to safely store chemicals.”

Owens also pointed to his previous experience, including an instance during his first year as director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in which he “worked hand in hand” with CSB as the agency investigated an air pollution incident in the state.

Owens testified that although he hasn’t closely dealt with industrial incidents, he’s proficient in methods intended to prevent them. An attorney with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, he frequently advises chemical manufacturers, processors and users on compliance with existing regulations such as OSHA’s standard on process safety management. From 2009 to 2011, Owens served as assistant administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, managing the agency’s regulatory programs on chemicals and pesticides, among other duties.

Sass, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council for the past 20 years, frequently has provided testimony and scientific briefs to members of Congress and federal advisory committees. Her biography on the NRDC website notes that her work focuses on “understanding and explaining the science behind toxic chemical regulation.” She also is a part-time faculty member at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

“The Chemical Safety Board has always enjoyed bipartisan support because in Congress’ wisdom, it recognized that the CSB’s mission was best achieved by a multidisciplinary board, and it includes someone with my skill set,” Sass said in response to questioning from Wicker. “It’s part of the description that Congress included when it described what a functioning board would look like. And I bring to that board health and toxicology skills and science policy skills, as well as a broad view that’s required for a thorough Chemical Safety Board investigation and meaningful recommendations to all stakeholders.”


Subcommittee Chair Jeff Merkley (D-OR) indicated before adjournment that senators would be allowed to submit questions for the record through Aug. 12, with the nominees’ responses due Aug. 26.

The Senate must confirm appointees nominated by the president. If confirmed, Johnson, Owens and Sass will join Chair and CEO Katherine Lemos on the board.

During a CSB public business meeting conducted later on July 29, David LaCerte, CSB’s acting managing director, acknowledged the ongoing procedures.

“We’re grateful for the attention from President Biden in recognizing our need for additional board members,” LaCerte said, “and we’re also thankful to the United States Senate for fulfilling their duty throughout the confirmation process. In the meantime, the CSB continues to meet our mission of driving chemical safety change.”

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