1663606576371 Csbdrama

End The Drama At The Chemical Safety And Hazard Investigation Board

Aug. 29, 2022
Turmoil at the top has hobbled its essential work for far too long

For nearly 25 years, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a small, independent federal agency, has played a crucial role in finding the causes behind significant safety incidents at facilities handling chemicals and sharing the lessons learned from these events with industry. Unfortunately, for more than a decade, the CSB has suffered from issues, both internal and external, that have hampered carrying out its mission.

Way back in 2008, I noted how the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report that detailed serious shortcomings at the CSB (“Chemical Safety Board Gets Rebuke”). Next, in 2014, I commented on how conflict among its board members as well as staff turnover undermined the CSB’s effectiveness (“Turmoil Takes a Toll on Chemical Safety Board"). Then, in 2017, the very existence of the CSB came into question when President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget completely eliminated funding for the agency, spurring my editorial “Save the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.” While that existential threat was averted, the CSB remained somewhat dysfunctional because of a lack of board members. President Trump nominated Katherine Lemos in June 2019 to be chair of the CSB, an appointment the Senate confirmed in March 2020. Soon after she joined, the only other board member resigned, leaving her as the only person on the board, which should have five members, each with a five-year term. President Biden in 2021 did nominate and get Senate approval for two board members, Steve Owen and Sylvia E. Johnson. (See: “Add Industry Perspective to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.”) At that time, I applauded the addition of more members to the board but lamented that it still lacked anyone with actual process safety experience.

Unfortunately, the turmoil continues. According to reports, e.g., by The Hill (“Inside the contentious Trump-Biden appointee fight on the Chemical Safety Board”), infighting among board members erupted, particularly over internal rules — including one approved by Lemos when she was sole board member that gave her what the other two board members call “unprecedented authority.” Lemos also faced criticism from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization of local, state and national environmental professionals, for her spending, particularly her travel between her home in San Diego and Washington, D.C. (“Chemical Safety Board Chair’s Spending Spree — On Herself").

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In early June, President Biden nominated Catherine J. K. Sandoval, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California, for the board. Almost immediately, Lemos announced her resignation. According to Bloomberg (“US Chemical Safety Board Chair Resigns Citing Lost Confidence"), she declared in her resignation letter to President Biden, “Recent priorities of the Board have eroded my confidence in our ability to focus [on the CSB’s mission].” Her resignation took effect in late July.

Let’s hope we now see less drama and more attention to crucial work at the CSB.

Let’s also hope President Biden brings the board up to its full strength. I urge him to nominate someone with extensive experience in process safety and knowledge of the chemical industry for at least one of the two remaining vacancies. 

MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at [email protected]
About the Author

Mark Rosenzweig | Former Editor-in-Chief

Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's former editor-in-chief. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' magazine Chemical Engineering Progress. Before that, he held a variety of roles, including European editor and managing editor, at Chemical Engineering. He has received a prestigious Neal award from American Business Media. He earned a degree in chemical engineering from The Cooper Union. His collection of typewriters now exceeds 100, and he has driven a 1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk for more than 40 years.

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