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Chemical Safety Board nominees speak during Senate hearing

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Washington — Chemical Safety Board interim executive Stephen Owens affirmed his optimism that “we can rebuild and revitalize the CSB and perform our mission as Congress intended” during a Nov. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee.

Nominated by President Joe Biden in July to succeed agency Chair and CEO Katherine Lemos, who stepped down that month as leader of the understaffed agency, Owens testified alongside Catherine J.K. Sandoval, who was nominated in June to serve as member of the board.

In addition to Lemos’ resignation, the agency has navigated the recent departure of a managing director and a senior advisor, leaving Owens and Sylvia Johnson – each sworn in Feb. 2 to serve five-year terms – as the only members of the five-person board.

“We’re very eager to get the new staff on board,” Owens said during the hearing. “We’re working within resource constraints right now, but we feel very optimistic that we can do that.”

Owens touted many of the same highlights he discussed Oct. 27 during a CSB public business meeting. In response to a staffing-related question from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Owens said “we’ve already been in the process of filling some of the more mission critical positions” at CSB, including a new chief information officer and chemical incident investigator.

Acting on a pledge from Owens and Johnson to boost agency transparency, CSB released the dates for each of its business meetings for fiscal year 2023 and has reopened the public comment portions of meetings.

Further, CSB has released three investigation reports since July and anticipates releasing three more before the end of the year. Prior to July, the agency had released only one report in the previous 10 months.

Capito addressed Owens, saying “these are important jobs that you’re filling and important reports that you’re generating.”

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said that although the agency appeared to be on the upswing, longstanding CSB concerns – namely staffing issues and an investigative backlog – were “unconscionable and inexcusable” for an agency committed to preventing industrial incidents.

Sandoval, a law professor at Santa Clara University who teaches and conducts research on energy, communications, antitrust and contract law, previously served a six-year term as commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission. She also is former undersecretary and staff director of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, a position in which she “gained experience in collaborative response to chemical incidents and safety measure development,” Sandoval said.

During her testimony, Sandoval told a personal story about the death of her great uncle in a chemical explosion. He worked at a facility near Benson, AZ, that made nitroglycerin-based dynamite used in mines in the era before OSHA was established.

“My experience in working with first responders during and following incidents, and in developing policy with first-responder input would be an asset to CSB investigations and safety recommendations,” Sandoval said. “My work with underserved and disadvantaged rural, urban, and tribal communities would enhance CSB community collaboration. My approach to CSB investigations would be fact-driven and faithful to the agency’s statutory safety mission. If I were to earn the honor of Senate confirmation, I would serve the CSB and American people with dedication and diligence.”

Merkley indicated before adjournment that senators would be allowed to submit questions for the record through Nov. 23, with the nominees’ responses due Nov. 30.

The nominations previously were sent to the Environment and Public Works Committee, which will vote on whether to advance the nominations to the full Senate at a date to be determined. The Senate must confirm appointees nominated by the president.

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