Removing Independent Agencies Not the Way to Balance the Federal Budget
Would you want to live near a chemical plant that ignores chemical safety? That’s like living next to an accident that is waiting to happen, an accident that might seriously impact you. And even when you live or work in areas remote from such facilities, you could still be affected since chemicals can travel by air, by water, and be retained by soil. The 2014 Elk River chemical spill in which a damaged storage tank spilled crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) upstream of the principal West Virginia American Water intake and treatment center is a case in point.
The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) exists to ensure chemical management safety. It is an independent federal agency that investigates serious chemical accidents to search for their causes and make recommendations to prevent a recurrence. Unlike the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the CSB does not perform enforcement, does not issue citations or fines but makes safety recommendations based upon their findings. What it does provide is a very necessary layer of assessment and accountability that no other agency performs. It is a watchdog with a focus on chemical plant safety, an eye on industry to ensure adherence to sane and sensible chemical management, which should but doesn’t always happen.
The results of their investigations are published, enabling the public to see what went wrong and why. If negligence is part of those results, everyone will know and financial repercussions may result. Certainly negligence can take many forms, from passive neglect (such as lack of safety training) to deliberate actions (such as inappropriate storage containers).
The CSB’s reviews of major accidents have proved significant. Its findings have led to industry standards on worker fatigue and greater reporting of hazardous chemicals to first responders.
Despite all the EPA and OSHA regulations, it is amazingly easy for industry to disregard safety and the impact of that disregard on workers and the community. There just aren’t enough enforcers to go around and double-check for compliance. Yes, reports are required and risk management plans should be in place, but it’s difficult to isolate noncompliance and time-consuming to evaluate what needs to change.
Unfortunately, the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruittt has delayed regulations that were made in response to the 2013 explosion of the fertilizer storage plant in West, Texas. These regulations better define the Risk Management Plan that all such organizations should have in place and are just common sense. In essence, the regulations, which were based on the CSB’s recommendations, were devised to set standards for how companies that own chemical plants, like West Fertilizer, make information available to their surrounding communities so that residents and first responders can prepare for accidents like the explosion.
Does operating the CSB cost money? Of course, but not a lot. It’s not a big money drain on the Federal budget, only receiving some $12 million annually and employing 50 people. If it is eliminated, and the States are expected to perform investigations, that $12 million equals less than $230,000 per State – a ludicrously low sum that would accomplish nothing. Looked at another way, that $12 million is far less than the clean-up cost for a single major accident. Certainly it should be worth it to understand and help prevent chemical catastrophes. Certainly it should be worth it to ensure that the Federal government is not called upon to provide financial disaster relief as it has done time after time, accident after accident.
And yet President Trump wants to eliminate the CSB. Go figure.