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By Sam Pearson
A White House proposal to abolish the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is a signal to the agency to operate more efficiently—but goes beyond what major industries want, say industry officials familiar with the agency.
“The industry does not support the abolition of the agency,” Stephen Brown, vice president of federal government affairs at Tesoro Corp., told Bloomberg BNA March 16. Rather, the industry wants a competent, professional body that will work with companies more collaboratively.
After years of criticism from groups on all sides under former Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, who resigned in 2015, industry and labor figures credit current Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland for adding stronger procedures for conducting investigations and reducing a backlog of cases, among other changes. Under the Trump budget plan, CSB would shut down when its funding expires on Sept. 30.
CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen first referred questions from Bloomberg BNA to the White House Office of Management and Budget. But Cohen later released a statement saying the agency—which received $12 million in fiscal 2016 and has about 40 employees—was “disappointed” in the proposal.
“Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety,” Cohen said. “Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the state of Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget.”
Unlike the Environmental Protection Agency, which President Donald Trump has called a “disgrace,” the CSB cannot issue regulations but merely safety recommendations, akin to how the National Transportation Safety Board investigates transportation accidents.
CSB’s absence could be felt in the industry-heavy states that largely supported Trump last year. CSB has investigated more than twice as many incidents in states that went for Trump in the election, including 26 probes in Trump-voting states Texas, West Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio, agency data show.
Michael Wright, director of health and safety at the United Steelworkers union, told Bloomberg BNA March 16 the CSB could be more useful to industry if it received more federal funding to allow it to investigate more of the incidents within its jurisdiction.
CSB has “certainly made the industry safer, and helped prevent major chemical accidents,” Wright said. “The cost of even one such accident would be more than the CSB’s budget over its entire history.”
Brown said industry can learn from CSB by understanding the root cause of a process safety incident—"where things went awry, and why.” It’s also important CSB investigators not have “a sort of hostile, gotcha attitude” with companies, Brown said.
The budget proposal suggests the CSB could have difficult relations with the White House, Brown said.
While the budget appears to have little support in Congress, Brown said the CSB “would be lucky to get back to where they were last fiscal year,” when it received $12 million.
Mark Farley, a partner at the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in Houston, who has represented companies involved in CSB probes, told Bloomberg BNA March 16 the intent of the cuts to CSB is unclear.
“They simply are trying to come up with the dollars to pay for increased spending elsewhere,” Farley said.
Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate the CSB along with 18 other independent agencies—the African Development Foundation, Appalachian Regional Commission, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Delta Regional Authority, Denali Commission, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Inter-American Foundation, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, Legal Services Corporation, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, Northern Border Regional Commission, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, United States Institute of Peace, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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