Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Reader Question – Backstory on CSB Problems

I got involved in a brief discussion over on LinkedIn about a chemical incident and OSHA inspectors responding to it. I made the comment that the CSB was underfunded and understaffed and I was asked to explain the backstory of that underfunding.

Current Spending

The currently proposed spending bill that includes the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (commonly known as the Chemical Safety Board, or CSB) is HR 8262. To find the CSB’s spending you have to go to the Committee Report for that bill. There on page 132, you can see that for FY 2023, the House Appropriations Committee suggests that the CSB should be funded at $14.1 million, a cool million above FY 2022’s funding.

Now I would love for someone to stick $14.1 million into my checking account, but that is not much money for a federal agency charged with investigating deadly and costly chemical facility accidents. For comparison the NTSB, the federal agency that investigates transportation accidents, is due to receive $129.3 million (H Rept 117-402, pg 176) in the THUD spending bill; that is $7.9 million more than for FY 2022.

It is hard to compare two agencies like the NTSB and CSB, and I am not suggesting that the two agencies should receive the same amount of spending, but an order of magnitude difference is uncomfortable to say the least.

The Backstory

The CSB was originally intended to be the NTSB of chemical incidents. It would serve as a non-regulatory agency that would investigate chemical facility incidents and publish reports that would allow others in the industry to learn the hard lessons of chemical safety based upon the pain of others. Like the NTSB, the CSB would prepare recommendations to industry and government agencies on how to prevent similar accidents from happening.

To date the CSB has published 861 recommendations based on their investigations with all but 87 of those having been adopted by the targeted organization. Looking back at the earliest of those outstanding recommendations we can get a look at why the CSB has problems with funding.

Outstanding Recommendations

The CSB website list sixteen recommendations as outstanding from before December 2012. Of those, 8 target OSHA, and one targets the EPA. Those recommendations include:

Updating OSHA RAGAGEP standards to meet industry standards,

Updating OSHA hazard communications standards to include static accumulation hazards,

Updating OSHA PSM standards to include management of organizational change,

Creating OSHA standard to prevent combustible dust fires and explosions,

Including metal dusts in recommended OSHA combustible dust standard,

Revising EPA accidental release rules to include reactive chemical hazard,

Revising OSHA PSM standards to include reactive chemical hazards,

Expanding OSHA PSM standards to include atmospheric storage tanks connected to process with flammable liquids,

Publishing OSHA safety and health bulletin on using flammable liquids in confined spaces.

Those nine recommendations are representative of a large portion of the 87 outstanding recommendations. The regulatory changes (very necessary in my opinion) being recommended will be very costly to industry. Most of them will require legislative action to provide OSHA and EPA clearcut authority to take the regulatory action.

Other Problems

Since about 2012 the Board has had internal political problems with conflicts between Board Members and with the staff. A large part of these problem has been driven by the political appointees trying to reflect the regulatory bias of the president that appointed them. This culminated in 2016 when President Trump tried to defund the Board in two successive budget requests. The five-member board has not been filled since before 2018 when Lemos was appointed by Trump to head the Board. She was the sole board member when Biden took office in 2020. When she leaves later this month there will be just two board members. All of this has had a detrimental effect on staff retention and staff morale.

Currently, the CSB has a long backlog of uncompleted investigations. There are 18 current investigations, dating back to 2016 and the CSB has not initiated a new investigation since July 27th of last year. In May, the Board was supposed to hold a public meeting looking at the Loy Lang investigation. Typically, this is the last step before a Board investigation report is published. This meeting was cancelled days before it was scheduled. No reason was given, but I suspect that the two new Biden Board Members were not going to support the recommendations that had been developed under the Lemos leadership.

With all of these problems, it is not hard to understand why Congress has not been willing to fund an active and efficient CSB. Biden has a chance to affect the Board for years to come with his nomination of a replacement for Lemos and the two open Board seats. It would be very helpful if he were to nominate someone with strong organizational skills and an established (and well recognized) expertise in chemical process safety.

1 comment:

Rosearray said...

The troubles and turmoil with the CSB go all the way back to its inception as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The "father" of the CSB was Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and its inclusion in the CAAA was reluctantly accepted by Bush-41. However, it was never funded until the second term of Bill Clinton. Before that time, the EPA and OSHA conducted several joint investigations of chemical disasters, which were particularly not well received. The last such investigation was the for the 4/21/1995 disaster at Napp Technologies in Lodi, NJ. This finally led to funding the CSB in 1998. The CSB is non-regulatory, but it is certainly NOT non-political. The record speaks for itself - Presidential support has ranged from non-existent at worst to luke warm at best. With the death of Senator Lautenberg, the agency really has no "champion" in Congress, and even Lautenberg was never able to increase its funding to something above the "life support" level. The CSB's reports and videos (in particular) are admired from afar, but as one gets closer, there are snipers firing at it from everywhere - industry, labor, NGOs and other government agencies. Each has their own axe to grind.

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