WASHINGTON, D.C. - Tomorrow, a key congressional oversight panel will hold a hearing to determine what needs to be done to revitalize the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
On Wednesday, September 29, 2021 at 10:30 a.m. ET, the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee -- which oversees the Chemical Safety Board -- will hear directly from the head of the agency, Dr. Katherine A. Lemos, as it struggles to complete a growing backlog of industrial accident investigations.
The hearing comes amid growing concern that the agency has been underperforming in recent years and unable to keep pace with a growing backlog of open investigations.
In addition to investigating the root cause of major chemical incidents when they occur, the agency is also responsible for making recommendations on how companies can avoid such incidents in the future; and lawmakers on the panel are worried that its inability to complete investigations and issue potentially life-saving recommendations in a timely manner is putting both workers and nearby communities at risk.
"The Chemical Safety Board is the agency we all rely on to keep us safe from the potential catastrophic consequences of a major chemical disaster in this country," said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel. "If CSB isn't able to do its job, then Congress needs to know why. We need to know what's causing this important agency to underperform and what needs to be done to ensure it has all the tools and resources it needs to keep people safe."
Since it was established in 1998, the CSB has been deployed to investigate more than 130 major chemical incidents across the country, including the 2012 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and the 2017 Arkema Chemical plant fire in Crosby, Texas that forced communities within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of the plant to evacuate after Hurricane Harvey knocked out power to the facility.
Those investigations have led the agency to issue more than 850 recommendations to companies and other federal agencies over the years to better protect plants, workers and nearby communities.
Despite its initial success, over the last three years the agency has completed only seven investigations with a backlog of 18 more that remain open. Of the CSB's five-member board of experts that are each nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to run the agency, there are currently four vacancies and only one full-time board member.
This lack of leadership at the top, coupled with CSB's inability to retain staff, have been cited as contributing factors to the agency's underperformance in recent years.
Lawmakers are also concerned that the growing number of extreme weather events the country has experienced in recent years as a result of climate change is putting industrial plants across the country at even greater risk.
Last month, Hurricane Ida caused leaks at several industrial facilities in Louisiana's industrial district after it made landfall near New Orleans. Multiple plants in New York and New Jersey were also damaged by the severe flooding that occurred there as the storm made its way up the east coast.
The projected increase in wildfires, droughts and heat waves caused by the climate crisis are also seen as potentially increasing the risk of chemical incidents throughout the country.
Tomorrow's hearing will give lawmakers on the panel an opportunity to hear directly from the current chair of the Chemical Safety Board on the challenges it faces and what needs to be done to get the agency up and running at full strength once again.
The hearing will be livestreamed beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET at the following link: https://degette.house.gov/media-center/in-the-news/hearing-protecting-communities-from-industrial-accidents-revitalizing-the
Following is a list of witnesses that will be testifying:
Katherine A. Lemos, Ph.D.
Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer
U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board