According to a new report from the federal inspector.
The US Bureau of Chemical Safety and Hazards Investigation, commonly known as CSB, has yet to fill three vacancies on its five-member board, and the agency has several “essential” staff positions that have remained unfilled for more than a year. a year, the US Environmental Protection Agency inspector’s office said the general in the report. These leadership and personnel deficiencies make it difficult for the agency to investigate a growing backlog of chemical accidents, the report said.
“Two new senior management challenges … may prevent CSB from effectively and efficiently driving chemical safety change through independent investigations that protect people and the environment,” the inspector general’s office said.
The CSB investigates the causes of chemical accidents and issues recommendations to factories, regulators, and business and labor groups. The agency does not issue fines, but instead relies on voluntary compliance and safety improvements. Created in 1998, the agency was a elimination goal under the administration of former President Donald Trump.
When properly staffed, the CSB has helped make Louisiana communities safer, said Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
“They did a great job when they had staff to assess the causes of large chemical accidents, fires and large releases,” she said. “The lack of inspectors leaves a big void, and this is having negative impacts on communities along the (chemical plant) fences.”
The CSB has an important watchdog role in Louisiana, the nation’s second-largest chemical producer after Texas. Last year, according to american chemistry board.
Toxic chemical releases, fires and explosions are common in some communities. An explosion on January 26 at a factory in Westlake near Lake Charles was almost identical to a which happened a few months before at another factory in nearby Westlake. The two incidents injured at least 29 workers.
The CSB has surveys completed from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010, the Williams Olefins factory explosion that killed two people in Geismar in 2013, the Packaging Corporation of America explosion that killed three people in DeRidder in 2017, and of four other large-scale incidents in Louisiana over the past 25 years.
The agency’s backlog of investigations includes three-day fire and massive release of toxic gas at the BioLab plant near Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura in 2020. CSB is also still working on incidents in Texas triggered by Hurricane Harvey more than five years ago.
Over the past three years, the CSB has experienced a staff attrition rate of 22%, according to the report. By comparison, the EPA’s attrition rate over the same period was 7%. Last year, the CSB lost nine managers, including its director of human resources, its lawyer and its director of information. Between 2019 and early 2022, the agency did not have a chief executive. The position was filled in February, but the person resigned after less than three months.
The agency was awarded a 24% increase in full-time staff last year, but few positions have been filled. As of August, the CSB had 12 investigators to cover incidents across the country. The agency had funding for five other investigator positions, but they were unfilled as of August, according to the report.
The CSC did not respond to a request for comment or updates on staffing levels.
The agency’s problems stem in part from wrangling between its board and the chief executive, all of whom are appointed by the president.
The report documents a “months-long conflict” involving the board and Katherine Lemos, a Trump administration appointee who served as both board chair and agency director.
At the start of 2021, the board had four vacancies, leaving Lemos as the only member. She changed the agency’s governance rules, giving the president the power to make most decisions independently of the board.
The Biden administration named two board members, Sylvia Johnson and Steve Owens, in late 2021. After their confirmation in April, the new members tried to change the rules, but Lemos suspended the vote, according to the report. Lemos resigned in July, say in a letter that the board’s priorities had “eroded my confidence in our ability to focus” on the agency’s mission.
The board of directors still has only two members, which negatively affects the agency’s productivity and its ability to hire new employees, the report said.
When the CSB is dysfunctional, Louisiana suffers, Subra said.
“When they have disputes or they don’t send investigators to the field, it means we don’t identify what happened during the crashes,” she said. “And that means they can reproduce.”
The explosion at the Westlake Corp. plant. is one of many incidents in the Lake Charles area.
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This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which are members of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.