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Trump budget would eliminate US Chemical Safety Board

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, Hazardex

20 March 2017

The Trump administration's budget blueprint would scrap the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent federal agency that investigates major chemical and oil industry incidents. The CSB has no regulatory power but is influential because its recommendations are often adopted by industry and government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Of all the changes introduced by the Trump team since taking over the US presidency in January, this has to be one of the most damaging for the employees of high hazard sector companies, and their surrounding communities.

It is hard to disagree with former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, who, reacting to this news, told Reuters: “If you want to put the American people in danger, this is the way to do it.”

The CSB's reviews of major accidents have led to industry standards on worker fatigue, greater reporting of hazardous chemicals to first responders, and have prompted companies to keep workers not directly involved in projects out of harm's way.

Its probe into the fatal Deepwater Horizon rig explosion led to new standards for safety in the offshore oil industry and in well equipment.

In California, many of the board’s safety recommendations have been drafted into law. For example, the state worker safety agency Cal/OSHA, has doubled its investigative staff based on CSB recommendations.

A statement released by the CSB chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said the agency was “disappointed” by President Trump’s proposal, asserting that the CSB’s investigations and recommendations “have had an enormous impact” on the safety of the public.

“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 Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget,” wrote Sutherland. The American public is safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB. As this process moves forward, we hope that the important mission of this agency will be preserved.”

Sam Mannan, Director of the Mark Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, said in a Bloomberg report that the agency’s efforts have resulted in “landmark” improvements in industry practices, resulting from “a measly $10 million dollars, in terms of the federal budget.”

Everyone connected with the industry uses the CSB's videos and reports, Mannan told the Houston Chronicle.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board abolished,” Tesoro Corp VP Stephen Brown told Bloomberg.  Tesoro was itself investigated by the CSB after the 2010 explosion and fire at its Anacortes refinery that resulted in the death of seven workers.

Glenn Ruskin, communications director for the American Chemical Society, said the CSB was a “vitally important agency” which had a large impact despite its small budget.

The Houston Chronicle said they had been unable to find any reputable expert, in or out of the industry, who advocated the elimination of the CSB.

Other measures in the budget blueprint likely to affect the effective regulation of companies and support for their workforces include swingeing cuts at the EPA and OSHA.

The administration has proposed reducing funding for the EPA by 31%. The blueprint envisages a $2.6 billion reduction in the agency’s budget, in part by cutting about 3,200 positions, about a fifth of the department’s work force.

The Trump budget also calls for cuts to OSHA’s funding, most notably the scrapping of its Susan Harwood Grant Program, which has provided health and safety training to more than 2.1 million working people since its inception in 1978. 

An important point is that these are only initial proposals and have to be passed, line by line, by Congress. Let us hope there are sufficient numbers of legislators in the House and Senate who recognise the damage these proposals are likely to cause and reverse them, or at least mitigate the worst of their effects.

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