Biden Administration Looks to Beef Up Agency Investigating Major Texas Plant and Refinery Explosions
After four years of neglect at the hands of President Donald Trump, it appears the U.S. Chemical Safety Board could finally be getting some much-needed attention from the Biden administration.
Late last month, the White House announced that President Joe Biden would be nominating three new members to the Board:
- Sylvia Johnson, an epidemiologist
- Steve Owens, an attorney who focuses on environmental, safety, and health issues
- Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This additional support from such technically strong and professionally proficient candidates will strengthen our advocacy and outreach efforts to make chemical facilities safer for workers, communities, and the environment,” Board Chairman and CEO Katherine Lemos said in a statement issued shortly after the nominations were made public.
Trump Left Chemical Safety Board with Just a Single Member
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is tasked with determining the root cause of major chemical disasters in the United States, including plant and refinery explosions. Although it has no enforcement power to punish companies for safety lapses that cause or contribute to these catastrophes, the Board’s non-binding recommendations are frequently adopted by regulators and industries and have been credited with saving countless lives.
But even though the Board operates on a budget that’s minuscule by federal standards, the previous administration made three attempts to eliminate its funding during the last four years, all of which were thwarted by Congress. President Trump’s obvious hostility towards the Chemical Safety Board resulted in low morale and an exodus of experienced investigators from the agency. His refusal to fill all but one vacancy also left the Board operating with just a single member for more than a year.
In July 2020, an inspector general report warned that the lack of Board members was putting the agency’s mission at risk.
“Having only one member impairs the function of the CSB, as all functions rest with that one member … workload limitations arising from one board member attempting to perform the work of five affect the accomplishment of the board’s technical responsibilities,” the report said.
Board’s Investigative Backlog Includes Major Texas Plant Explosions
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board currently has 20 open investigations dating back to 2016.
Several Texas disasters — the Watson Grinding explosion in Houston, the TPC plant explosion in Port Neches, the ITC Deer Park fire, the fatal KMCO explosion in Crosby, and the Kuraray plant explosion in Pasadena, among others – are included in the backlog.
The Board is set to release a final report on the fatal incident at the Aghorn Operating facility in Odessa later this week. It will mark the first time the agency has issued such a report since December 2019.
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