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‘We’re on an upward trend,’ Chemical Safety Board chair tells House subcommittee

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Photo: House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee

Washington — Despite numerous operational and staffing challenges, the Chemical Safety Board is “on an upward trend,” CSB Chair and CEO Katherine Lemos testified during a Sept. 29 hearing before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Lemos, who has carried on as the sole member of the five-person board since May 2020, said in her opening remarks that CSB, in fiscal year 2021, closed two of its 20 ongoing investigations and issued 19 new safety recommendations, compared with zero the previous fiscal year.

She went on to say that CSB is finalizing the hiring of four investigators while expanding its contractor base in such specialized fields as equipment testing and blast modeling, remaining on track to reach an agency high for investigation and technical specialists by the end of FY 2023.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Sept. 22 approval of the nominations of Sylvia Johnson, Steve Owens and Jennifer Sass as members of CSB – the trio is awaiting confirmation from the full Senate – has further fueled Lemos’ optimism.

“I believe that we’re on an upward trend,” Lemos said in response to questioning from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ). “We have hired more staff. They’re joining. We’re likely to get more board members. I believe that that’s an upward trend, and we’re going to maintain that staff and engage them. But to be able to conduct all of the activities in our enabling legislation, which is to conduct safety studies in addition to investigations, although investigations is the primary [focus], we would need that additional staff to be able to carry that out effectively and fully.”

Multiple subcommittee members voiced support for CSB and Lemos during their allotted question periods.

“I really appreciate the yeoman’s work that you are doing in a very tough situation,” Subcommittee Chair Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said, “but we all agree on the mission here. We just have to get this agency working to protect the safety of our constituents.”

To that end, DeGette asked whether CSB could commit to providing, at quarterly public meetings, a schedule of completion for open investigations. Lemos agreed to honor the request.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) paused during one of his questions to Lemos to note that he does “appreciate that you have been carrying this load yourself, so I don’t want to undermine that or neglect to say that.”

Lemos reiterated that although she’s the lone member on the board, numerous staff members remain diligent in working to accomplish the agency’s mission.

 

In a letter dated Sept. 28 and sent to DeGette and Griffith, American Chemistry Council President and CEO Chris Jahn and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers President and CEO Chet Thompson thanked the subcommittee for conducting the hearing, writing: “We believe that a fully constituted CSB, properly funded and managed, is essential to achieving our shared safety objectives.”

The executives call on Congress and the Biden administration to “support appropriate funding levels” needed for the agency to train and retain investigators and to remain successful. CSB was a frequent target for elimination under the Trump administration.

“Congress has tasked CSB with the critical role of investigating industrial chemical accidents, conducting root-cause analyses and making recommendations based on the factual determinations,” Jahn and Thompson write. “The CSB’s findings are highly influential and a catalyst for safety improvements. Our members find considerable value in CSB’s work – especially the reports, videos and other materials generated by the board as part of its investigations.”

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