Chemical Safety Board Shutdown Plan Left Officials ‘Shocked’

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By Sam Pearson

Called to a meeting with the White House Office of Management and Budget March 15, Chemical Safety Board leaders came prepared to explain how the agency could trim its $11 million budget in the upcoming fiscal year.

What they learned there left board members “shocked,” CSB Chairperson Vanessa Sutherland said at a business meeting April 13. The White House wanted to shut down the agency instead.

OMB made it official by including the move to stop funding CSB and 18 other independent agencies and public corporations in a “skinny budget” published the next day.

“It is a truly impactful body of work we have done,” Sutherland said, “and it would be a shame if we didn’t continue.”

CSB leaders, who have said they had little interaction with the Trump administration’s presidential transition team, also say the agency plans to keep working just as before to finish reports, issue recommendations and send investigators to new incidents as needed. The board has also heard from commenters from community organizations in various regions of the country wanting tips on how to pressure industrial facility operators and lobby congressional appropriators.

Industry officials, public interest groups and others have expressed confusion over the proposed closure of CSB in the past month. The White House “skinny budget” does not explain the reason for the decision.

Board Member Rick Engler said the board was also in the dark.

“We haven’t been told exactly why the CSB does not perform a necessary function,” Engler said.

He added he assumes the White House believes CSB is “duplicative” of other agencies, but that is a mistaken belief. Once CSB started operating in 1998, its investigations were more comprehensive than past attempts by the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Engler said.

The board has been in touch with congressional committees to “express the value of what we do, our work, and to provide more context about our budget,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland said CSB intends to submit a budget request to Congress later this year “that we think would be able to allow us to operate effectively in [fiscal year 2018] to carry out the mission.”

Under CSB’s authorizing legislation, the agency is permitted to send a budget request to Congress without the approval of OMB—latitude most federal agencies lack.

Multiple Investigations Near Close

Despite the threat of shutting down, the CSB plans to release this spring its finding from several pending investigations, Sutherland said.

The agency will release a series of final reports in the next few months at local press conferences:

  •  April 20 on an AirGas nitrous oxide manufacturing facility in Pensacola, Fla.
  •  May 3 on a former Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, Calif., where an explosion occurred in February 2015, at a press conference in Torrance
  •  In late May on the Delaware City Refining Co. refinery in Delaware City, Del., at a press conference in the area
Completing the projects will leave CSB with seven other pending investigations:
  •  April 2017: Loy-Lange Box Co. explosion
  •  February 2017: Packaging Corporation of America welding explosion
  •  November 2016: ExxonMobil Corp. Baton Rouge, La. chemical release and fire
  •  October 2016: MGPI Processing Inc. Atchison, Kan. chemical release
  •  August 2016: Sunoco Logistics Partners Nederland, Texas terminal facility fire
  •  June 2016: Enterprise Pascagoula Gas Plant Pascagoula, Miss., explosion and fire
  •  November 2014: DuPont LaPorte facility, LaPorte, Texas, chemical release

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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