February 1, 2018, by Ari Natter
President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget proposal will again call for ending the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that investigates major industrial accidents, according to a senior government official familiar with the plan.
The agency, with an annual budget of $11 million, was informed by the White House Office of Management and Budget in November that the budget would propose its elimination, the person said.
Similar to Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request, which also proposed elimination, the agency would receive enough funding to shut its operation down, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the cuts and asked not to be identified.
A spokeswoman for the Chemical Safety Board referred questions to the White House budget office, which didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Trump’s proposed budget is expected to be released Feb. 12.
“The U.S. averages more than 1,000 major industrial chemical accidents every year,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in an email. “Eliminating any federal capacity to learn the causes of potentially catastrophic industrial accidents would be unwise in the extreme.”
The safety agency, created in 1990 to find the root causes of industrial accidents and recommend ways to prevent them from recurring, has investigated incidents ranging from BP Plc’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blowout in 2010 to the chemical spill that tainted drinking water for hundreds of thousands of West Virginian residents in 2014.
Current investigations include on into an explosion at a natural gas well in Oklahoma that killed five people in January, and a Houston-area chemical plant that caught fire and partially exploded because of flooding during Hurricane Harvey in August.
Congressional appropriators rejected the White House’s previous request to eliminate the agency’s funding, with outgoing House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, holding up the CSB as an example of “programs that protect environmental safety.”
The tiny agency, whose investigative staff includes chemical and mechanical engineers, industrial safety experts and other specialists, makes safety recommendations instead of issuing rules and penalties. It’s been viewed skeptically by some in industry, and its findings often shed light on dangerous industry practices.
“While CSB has done some outstanding work on its investigations, more often than not, its overlap with other agency investigative authorities has generated unhelpful friction,” the White House said in its previous budget proposal. “In recent years, CSB’s recommendations have also been focused on the need for greater regulation of industry, which has frustrated both regulators and industry.”
In 2014, a congressional probe said CSB was in disarray, marred by an “abusive and hostile work environment” that had spurred several investigators to flee the agency. The CSB also was rapped for moving too slowly to complete its investigations. The chairman at the time has since resigned and new staff has arrived.
The agency has its fans in industry, including at the oil company Andeavor, formerly known as Tesoro Corp., which also sees room for improvement.
“The mission of the Chemical Safety Board is worth preserving,” Stephen H. Brown, vice president of federal government affairs for the San Antonio, Texas-based refiner said in an email. “A credible safety oversight entity that partners with stakeholders on accident investigations, conducts root cause analysis, and fosters learnings without those activities being sometimes hijacked by the political agenda of individual Board members would be the ideal.”