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CSB: The Last Chance Saloon

15 June 2018

At the PS Congres process safety conference in Dordrecht, The Netherlands, in late May, US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland confirmed to Hazardex that she had resigned her position at the agency. 

Vanessa Sutherland - Image: CSB
Vanessa Sutherland - Image: CSB

The CSB is a fact-finding agency that looks into chemical and related industry incidents and reports on the root causes behind those incidents. Its recommendations on how to avoid similar mishaps have been widely implemented and have saved many lives over the last 20 years. It is no exaggeration to say that CSB reports have changed the face of process safety in the USA.  

One example. After the 2005 explosion at the BP plant in Texas City, the CSB investigated not only the physical cause of the disaster, but also the corporate decisions leading up to the accident. BP executives took the report to heart, adding a board member focused on safety, instituting a new incident reporting system and appointing an independent panel examining safety issues within the company.

Sutherland issued the following statement: “I am saddened to leave the wonderful mission and incredible work of the CSB. This mission is unique and critically important because we are the only agency conducting independent, comprehensive root cause chemical incident investigations.  As we continue to recognize the agency’s 20th anniversary of operations, we still have much work to do to achieve our vision of a nation safe from chemical disasters. And I am absolutely certain that this team, and future hires, will both excel in execution and outshine our prior efforts. I’m fortunate to have been a part of the work.”

Unfortunately, it is far from clear that there will be any future hires. The Trump administration has proposed defunding the agency, even though its budget is just $12 million a year, and the shadow over its future has led to a haemorrhaging of staff. The number of investigators working there has fallen to 12 from 20 in early 2017.

The effects of this winding-down are increasingly evident. The CSB did not send investigators to the Valero Texas refinery explosion in April that injured 28 workers, just one of the serious incidents in the last few months that will not now benefit from the agency’s insight.

Sutherland, her colleagues and predecessors at the CSB carried out essential work that saved many lives. If members of Congress fail to contest Trump’s plans for the agency, safety in high hazard industries across the USA will be seriously compromised.

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