Killing The Watchdog

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Pipe fitter Jody Gooch and welders Sedrick Stallworth and William Rolls Jr. stood just feet away when a tank exploded at the Packaging Corp. of America pulp and paper mill in DeRidder, La. The blast killed the contract workers, injured seven others and hurtled the 80-foot tank six stories into the air.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) concluded that welding sparks likely ignited turpentine vapors that built up inside the tank, and the agency released a comprehensive incident report and safety video to protect workers at other mills.

The CSB regularly issues guidance like this so companies that use dangerous chemicals in the production process learn from their mistakes. But Donald Trump, who refuses to admit his own failures, can’t grasp the importance of learning from anyone else’s, either. Instead of supporting the safety watchdog, Trump wants to kill it.

He allocated no funding for the CSB four years in a row.  As board members’ terms expired, Trump failed to replace them. The five-person board is down to just one member, whose term expires in August.

Trump likes to call himself a champion for workers.

But more workers will die if he abolishes the CSB. The people who live near these plants will be at increased risk as well because explosions, leaks and toxic emissions often inflict widespread damage on nearby communities.

Many Americans probably never heard of the CSB. But they’re safer because of it.

Congress created the 22-year-old agency to conduct independent investigations of industrial chemical disasters. Congress considered the work so important that it shielded the agency from outside interference.

The CSB doesn’t answer to any agency or official in the executive branch. This autonomy enables it to scrutinize not only the companies involved in disasters but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal entities regulating these industries.

The CSB issues no fines or citations. It makes no regulations. Its mission is safety education.

The agency interviews witnesses, collects chemical samples for analysis and reviews the plant’s operating and safety records to determine how a disaster occurred. It disseminates its findings through reports, bulletins and videos. By sharing lessons learned, the CSB strives to avert future tragedies.

Since it began operating in 1998, the CSB investigated hundreds of disasters and made hundreds of  safety recommendations.

Often, the CSB uncovers lapses in safety or identifies threats, such as the buildup of flammable turpentine at Packaging Corp., with industry-wide implications.

The board determined that turpentine accumulated because of confusion in the mill about who was responsible for maintaining the tank. An unusual amount of air also entered the tank, making the contents especially volatile when Gooch, Stallworth and Rolls began hot work.

Thanks to the CSB’s investigation, companies know to guard against those risks.

The agency’s reports, bulletins and videos all are accessible on the board’s website. If Trump abolishes the CSB, companies, unions and workers would have no easy way of learning about hazards, each other’s experiences or safety trends, setting the stage for even more disasters.

The CSB does its vitally important work with a mere $12 million annual budget. Communities and workers’ lives are invaluable, and chemical-related disasters cause billions of dollars in damage to mills, plants and refineries. The CSB reported that BP alone suffered more than $1.5 billion in financial losses because of the 2005 fire and explosions at its Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 contractors and injured 180 other workers.

Yet Trump, the billionaire who loves to brag about his business skills, refuses to acknowledge the enormous return that Americans get for a minimal investment in the CSB. He fails to see the CSB for the bargain it is.

Workers, scientists and people who live near chemical plants all value the board’s work. Even corporations and Republican members of Congress support the CSB.

When Trump cut  the CSB out of his 2018 budget, a vice president at Tesoro, Stephen Brown, called for sparing the agency. He did so even though the CSB criticized Tesoro’s safety practices after a 2010 fire and explosion at the company’s Anacortes, Wash., refinery that killed a supervisor and six workers represented by the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board be abolished,” Brown said.

Congress understands the CSB’s critical role, so it funded the CSB in 2018 despite Trump’s opposition. It continued funding for 2019 and 2020 after the president left the agency out of his budgets for those years as well.

Now, in his newest budget proposal, Trump wants to eliminate the agency’s regular funding for 2021. Instead, he wants to give the CSB $10 million to wind down affairs and disappear.

As he tried to starve the agency of money, Trump also gutted the board. Members rotated off at the end of their terms, and Trump refused to replace them.

Under normal circumstances, five board members—all experts in workplace safety—direct investigations and the agency’s 50 or so employees. They also travel to disaster sites and hold community meetings to keep the public informed.

The CSB operated with three board members from June 2018 until December, when Manny Ehrlich’s term expired. This month, Rick Engler’s tenure ended. That leaves only Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, whose term expires in August.

There aren’t enough members to oversee cases or write reports. Delay undercuts the CSB’s safety mission.

Last year, Trump nominated Katherine Lemos, an official at Northrop Grumman Corp., to fill one of the vacancies. The Senate hasn’t yet voted on her confirmation. But one new board member isn’t sufficient, especially with Kulinowski’s impending departure.

Trump claims that the CSB isn’t needed because other agencies, such as the EPA, oversee the chemical and petrochemical industries.  But the CSB’s importance grew as Trump’s EPA fell down on the job.

Last year, in a big gift to corporations, the EPA gutted the Chemical Disaster Rule, a series of regulations intended to force operators to take common-sense steps to prevent disasters and conduct more thorough investigations after tragedies occur.

For example, the rule required operators to consider whether new equipment or changes in the production process would improve safety. It also mandated them to conduct comprehensive investigations after a disaster—the kind the CSB performs—to identify all the contributing factors.

The CSB opposed the EPA’s rollback of the Chemical Disaster Rule. Now, if the CSB isn’t around to perform deep-dive investigations, there’s no guarantee that anybody will.

When a disaster occurs, as it did at Packaging Corp., the victims’ families and colleagues deserve to know what went wrong. Other workers deserve be protected from similar tragedies.

If Trump abolishes the CSB, he will subject more workers to grisly deaths. And the industry won’t learn from its mistakes. It will be doomed to repeat them.


Image from Getty Images

Posted In: From the USW International President

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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