As part of his administration’s rollback of key safety and environmental protections, President Donald Trump wants to eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency with a strong record of improving public safety. The proposed gutting of the agency comes as the Trump administration seeks to give a boost to the nation’s petrochemical industry as part of its “energy dominance” agenda.
As with his FY 2018 budget, Trump’s new budget proposal will call for wiping out the Chemical Safety Board’s entire $12 million budget, Bloomberg News reported Thursday. The agency is charged with investigating major chemical fires, explosions, leaks, and other accidents.
The Chemical Safety Board, with its relatively small budget, plays an oversized role among federal agencies. In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the agency was on the frontlines, looking into a fire and explosions at a chemical facility, owned by French company Arkema Inc., northeast of Houston. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were sent to the hospital on the morning of August 31, 2017, after responding to the chemical fire and falling ill in the middle of the road.
The board was created as part of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 and began operations in 1998. The agency’s recommendations are often adopted by industry and government agencies. For example, the agency, with only 40 staff, investigated the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and has performed more than 130 investigations since it began operations in 1998. The agency is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates plane crashes and other major accidents. Like the NTSB, the Chemical Safety Board is an independent agency.
Most recently, Chemical Safety Board staff traveled to Oklahoma to investigate a natural gas well explosion that killed five workers. The agency is currently reviewing information about the drill site and plans to interview eyewitnesses and others who were present beginning next week, it said Wednesday in a statement.
The United States averages more than 1,000 industrial chemical accidents each year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that investigates reports of environmental crimes from government employees. Throughout its history, the agency has responded primarily to incidents with high consequences, including fatalities, injuries, more than $500,000 in facility damage, or significant environmental or community impact.
Starting in 2010, the agency prioritized eliminating an investigation backlog. The backlog peaked at about 22 open cases in June 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig explosion and fire. In January 2016, a year before President Barack Obama left office, the number of open investigations has been reduced to seven.
Last year, after the agency learned of its proposed elimination under Trump’s FY 2018 budget, Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland issued a statement expressing extreme disappointment with the president’s proposal.
“For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters,” Sutherland said. “Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety.”
The agency’s recommendations 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 Mississippi. “The American public is safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” she said.