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Senate confirms Johnson, Owens as members of Chemical Safety Board

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

Washington — The Senate on Dec. 9 confirmed two new members to serve on the Chemical Safety Board, boosting the profile of an agency that – for more than 18 months – has carried on with only one of its five board seats filled.

Sylvia Johnson and Steve Owens were confirmed by voice vote to serve five-year terms and will join Chair and CEO Katherine Lemos on the board. CSB has operated with Lemos as a self-described “quorum of one” since May 1, 2020.

“I am proud of the team we have at the CSB and welcome new board members as we rebuild the agency,” Lemos said in a press release. “Each will bring unique perspectives and knowledge to investigations and final outcomes, to the strategic direction of our agency, and in advancing our advocacy efforts.”

Johnson leads the National Education Association’s government relations department. Her previous work experience includes serving as assistant legislative director of legislative affairs for United Auto Workers and as an occupational epidemiologist in UAW’s health and safety department.

Owens specializes in environmental, health and safety issues as an attorney with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. From 2009 to 2011, he worked as assistant administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, where his duties included managing the agency’s regulatory programs on chemicals and pesticides under statutes such as the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.

President Joe Biden nominated Johnson and Owens on April 28. At press time, no further action had been taken on the nomination of Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Jennifer Sass.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the nominations of the trio Sept. 22, with Sass advancing by a 10-10 vote amid a call from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) that Sass’ nomination be rejected.

A Senate Democratic aide told Safety+Health that the committee with this action “began the process to discharge her nomination for Senate consideration.”

On Sept. 29, Lemos testified during a hearing before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that CSB remained “on an upward trend” despite the agency’s long-standing and well-documented operational and staffing challenges.

Lemos’ opening remarks included updates 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 also said CSB is finalizing the hiring of four investigators and expanding its contractor base in specialized fields such as equipment testing and blast modeling, keeping CSB on track to reach an agency high for investigation and technical specialists by the end of FY 2023.

 

CSB was a target for elimination under the Trump administration. In a report issued Nov. 10, the EPA Office of Inspector General contends that operating with just one board seat filled “may prevent the CSB from achieving its stated mission to ‘drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect people and the environment.’”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, applauded the confirmations.

“Getting these qualified individuals confirmed to serve on [CSB] is fantastic news,” Carper said in a press release. “Both Mr. Owens and Ms. Johnson are proven leaders, and their confirmations come at a much-needed time for the board. I am hopeful we can soon fill the remaining vacancies so CSB can fulfill its mission to the American people as intended.”

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