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Steelworkers take note as Chemical Safety Board leaders vie to ‘rebuild’ agency

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Washington — Pledging this past summer to increase agency transparency in fiscal year 2023, Chemical Safety Board interim executive Stephen Owens said to expect regular updates on incident investigations, personnel hiring and other agency developments.

One stakeholder has noticed the change, along with other CSB efforts.

“It’s clear there’s a commitment to reinvigorating the agency and the staff under this new administration,” Steve Sallman, director of United Steelworkers’ environmental, health and safety department, said Oct. 27 during the public comment period of CSB’s most recent public business meeting.

In September, CSB released the dates for each of its FY 2023 business meetings, a notable shift, Sallman said, from the days when the agency was a frequent target for elimination under the Trump administration.

“Our union asked the past administration many times to provide advanced notice of when the CSB’s public business meetings are held so stakeholders could plan accordingly, but those requests were basically ignored,” Sallman said. “We also could not actively participate in the CSB’s public meetings.”

Sworn in Feb. 2 to serve five-year terms on the understaffed CSB, Owens and fellow board member Sylvia Johnson often have spoken of their commitment to transparency and information sharing.

CSB has released three investigation reports since July, Owens pointed out during the meeting, and anticipates releasing three more before the end of the year. Before July, the agency had released one such report in the previous 10 months.

The mission has continued amid the announced resignations in May and June of agency Chair and CEO Katherine Lemos as well as CSB’s managing director and a senior advisor. Lemos stepped down July 22, leaving CSB with three vacant seats. Owens was nominated in July to succeed Lemos. One month earlier, Catherine J.K. Sandoval was nominated to serve as a member of the board.

 

The nominations of Owens and Sandoval have been referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The committee likely will conduct confirmation hearings, either in tandem or separately, for both nominations at a date(s) to be determined.

In a report issued Sept. 7, the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General stated that agency leadership issues, limited staffing and ambiguous internal investigative protocol have interfered with CSB’s “ability to accomplish its mission.”

Owens acknowledged during the meeting that CSB has “suffered serious attrition among our investigative staff and other important positions, and the agency fell to one of its lowest levels of career staff in its history.”

However, CSB recently hired a chemical incident investigator, Owens said, with several more expected to join the agency soon. CSB also has welcomed a new chief information officer and two recommendation specialists, with recruiting for other “key staff positions” underway.

“Sylvia Johnson and I are working very hard, along with our career staff, to rebuild this agency as quickly as we can,” Owens said.

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