Threats to Chemical Safety Board Slow Agency’s Work

USW officials joined industry leaders at a Senate hearing in January to voice concerns about the future of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).

When board member Rick Engler’s term expired Feb. 6, only one member, Interim Executive Authority Kristen Kulinowski, remained on what is supposed to be a five-person board.

The president is tasked with appointing board members, who serve five-year terms and must have technical experience, including accident reconstruction and safety engineering. However, in three years, President Trump nominated only one person, Katherine Lemos, and the Senate has yet to confirm her nomination.

Steve Sallman, assistant director of the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department, said a fully functioning CSB is essential to the safety of USW members and other workers in the industry. Sallman, who testified Jan. 29 before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, added that the board also needs sufficient funding and staff to investigate incidents.

He cited several CSB investigations at USW-represented paper mills, oil refineries and chemical plants that resulted in comprehensive reports and videos shown to workers in trainings and safety meetings.  He said these items help workers learn how to prevent future incidents involving process safety management, hot work, combustible dust and inadvertent mixing of substances.

The CSB, an independent federal agency, is tasked with investigating chemical incidents to find the root causes and offer recommendations to avoid such accidents in the future. It does not have the power to levy penalties. Congress created it in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

CSB’s importance

Sallman said the CSB helps USW workers gain an increased ability to recognize and understand system failures, see hazards, identify and address work organization factors, and acknowledge the importance of engineering controls to prevent repeat incidents.

Industry also benefits

“Paper mills are essentially chemical plants that manufacture paper, where our union has experienced some of the highest number of fatalities,” Sallman said. “The CSB helped bring the industry’s attention to the largely unrecognized hazard of recycled paper pulp and water in tanks.”

The CSB discovered that the mixture decomposes to create flammable hydrogen, so the combustible gas must be monitored before hot work is performed.

Facility owners are not the only ones who benefit from a CSB investigation, he said. Many of the root cause findings are applicable across USW-represented sites with highly hazardous substances and processes.

Sallman emphasized the need to fill the vacant seats on the board so that the agency’s high-quality investigations, recommendations and videos continue.

“The board must have members who support and uphold the CSB’s mission to drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect people and the environment,’” he said.

CSB funding must be a priority

Funding for the CSB has longstanding bipartisan support from Congress, labor, industry groups and other stakeholders. The agency has done its work with fewer than 50 staff and a budget that has never exceeded $12 million.

Despite support from the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry trade association, and other safety professional organizations for the CSB, President Trump has tried to defund and eliminate the CSB three times. His budget for 2021 proposes to eliminate the agency again. He believes the CSB’s work overlaps with the responsibilities of other agencies; yet, Congress created it because other agencies were not investigating incidents to find the root causes, share the lessons learned and prevent such accidents from repeating.

Sallman testified the USW believes that $12 million is a bargain for an agency that works to prevent loss of life and costly damage to infrastructure from catastrophic chemical incidents.

“With the Administration’s recent roll back of the Risk Management Program’s Chemical Disaster Rule, the CSB stands as one of the last lines of defense in providing root cause analysis investigations and recommendations to prevent future catastrophic incidents,” he said.

More investigative staff needed

Sallman testified that the CSB has been so understaffed the past decade that investigators were unable to complete their work at USW-represented facilities. For example, the agency did not have enough staff available to create a full report and video about the July 2008 incident at a Packaging Corporation of America paper mill where a tank of recycled paper pulp and water exploded, killing three workers.  There was only time for issuing a safety bulletin.

In addition, the CSB did not have enough staff to complete a full investigation of a July 2009 fire and release of hydrofluoric acid at Citgo’s Corpus Christi, Texas, refinery, Sallman said.

“Without the proper funding and staffing, we will continue to learn about hazards incident-by-incident or even worse, fatality-by-fatality. For this reason, the USW strongly supports efforts to hire and retain more qualified investigators at the CSB.”

CSB issues final rule on accident release reporting

During the week of Feb. 10, the CSB will publish in the Federal Register the official version of its final rule on accidental release reporting.  A prepublication version of the final rule is available HERE.

Owners or operators of facilities that experience an accidental release of a regulated or extremely hazardous substance that results in a death, serious injury or substantial property damage must promptly report it to the CSB. The agency expects these reports to have crucial information that will enable it to quickly deploy investigators.

The 1990 legislation that created the CSB required this rule, and it took a court order last year to get the agency to finalize a rule within a year.

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