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Urgent Call for Reform at U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Thursday, July 15, 2021
Press Contacts: 

Roger Kerson, 734.645.0535; roger@nationalcosh.org

Urgent Call for Reform at U.S. Chemical Safety Board

22 Labor, Environmental, Scientific and Public Interest Groups
Say Understaffed Agency, with Record Backlog of Investigations,
Is Failing to Protect Workers and the Public

Washington DC – The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the agency charged with investigating toxic chemical fires, explosions, and releases, is understaffed, facing a record backlog and needs urgent reforms, say 22 labor, environmental, scientific and public interest organizations.

The United Steelworkers Union (USW), Earthjustice, the Union for Concerned Scientists, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and other groups, in a letter to CSB Chairperson Katherine Lemos, called for the agency to rebuild its investigative capacity in order to fully protect workers and communities from potentially deadly hazards.

A full list of signatories, which also includes the AFL-CIO, Greenpeace US, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), is below.

The CSB has a backlog of 19 uncompleted investigations, dating back to 2016. Thirty-two people died and 87 were injured in these incidents. The agency is currently down to just 12 investigators, the lowest number in recent CSB history.

“It’s vital that the CSB conduct thorough, timely investigations and issue reports and videos so that workers and their communities remain safe,” said Steve Sallman, director of the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment department. “We urge Chairperson Lemos to heed our call for reforms, and just as urgently, we hope the Senate will swiftly confirm President Biden’s nominees to fill three of the vacant seats on the board. The CSB has a long history of doing important work, but in order to keep that work alive, there must be significant changes.”

The CSB does not issue fines or citations, but makes recommendations to management, labor, trade associations and governments to improve processes for handling dangerous chemicals and to prevent future tragedies.

“The work of the Chemical Safety Board has been important for years in identifying serious gaps in federal safety regulations, and it is urgent to get the Board’s work back on track,” said Terry McGuire, senior legislative representative for EarthJustice. “Climate change is driving more extreme weather events that put millions of Americans in the potential danger zone for a catastrophic chemical disaster -- and so it’s disappointing that the Board has not released new recommendations on this issue, and it’s a serious problem for public health and safety that there is such a backlog of chemical disaster investigations. We'll all be safer when CSB has the staff and resources for its critical investigative and reporting work and shares with the public, EPA, and OSHA the most current information available on recent incidents and actions that should occur to prevent chemical disasters.”

“The CSB may be a small agency, but it has a big job to do – protecting communities and workers from hazardous chemicals,” said Genna Reed, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “With smart reforms and targeted actions, the administration can bring CSB to a new level of effectiveness, protecting public health and advancing environmental justice.  A diverse, engaged, fully-staffed and scientifically-minded CSB can quite literally save lives.”

Chairperson Lemos is currently the only serving member of the CSB, running the agency as a “self-proclaimed quorum of one.” By statute, the agency is supposed to have five board members; three nominations by President Biden are pending before the U.S. Senate.

In their joint letter to Lemos, 22 organizations are calling for urgent reforms, which can be implemented within the agency’s current $12 million annual budget.  These include:

  • A specific accounting of the current backlog, and plan to resolve these investigations;
  • A plan to hire more qualified investigators, with diverse skills and backgrounds;
  • A memorandum of understanding with the Department of Homeland Security to restrict Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity during active CSB investigations, so that workers are not afraid to come forward and be witnesses;
  • A return to the policy -- approved by a vote of the full CSB in 2019 but now ignored -- of including the names of deceased victims of chemical incidents in CSB investigative reports;
  • Improved governance, including a return to setting policy by majority rule instead of sole action by the CSB chairperson, and increased transparency and public engagement.

“It’s good news that new board members have been nominated to the CSB, but this is a severely troubled agency that requires ongoing attention from the White House and Congress,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of National COSH. “We need to build on a strong record of bipartisan support for the CSB’s mission to fix this agency and give workers and communities located near chemical facilities the protections they deserve.”

Signatories to the letter to CSB Chairperson Lemos are:

United Steelworkers (USW), Union of Concerned Scientists, Earthjustice, AFL-CIO, BlueGreen Alliance, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC), Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), Sierra Club,Greenpeace US, Coming Clean, National COSH, Coalition for a Safe Environment, New Jersey Work Environment Council, NAACP Branch #1069, Community Dreams, California Kids IAQ, EMeRGE, Center for Progressive Reform, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Air Alliance Houston, California Communities Against Toxics, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA).

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