Watchdog: Chemical safety agency impeded by staff shortage

FILE - The entrance of the LyondellBasell facility in La Porte, Texas, is shown on July 27, 2021. A new report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general says the federal agency that investigates chemical accidents, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, is hindered by a lack of staffing, leadership disputes and a backlog of investigations that threaten its ability to protect people and the environment. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board completed one investigation in 2020, three in 2021, including at the LyondellBasell facility, and three so far this year, the report said. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)
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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal agency that investigates chemical accidents is hindered by a lack of staffing, leadership disputes and a backlog of investigations that threaten its ability to protect people and the environment, according to a new report by a federal watchdog.

The report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general says the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is “challenged by vacancies in mission-critical positions and an inability to fully use the resources Congress allocated” to it.

Leadership disputes, shoddy internal reviews and reporting backlogs “are impeding the board’s ability to accomplish its mission,” Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a letter to the board’s acting head.

O’Donnell’s report, released this week, comes after the board’s former chairwoman resigned this summer amid criticism about extravagant spending, ongoing disputes with other board members and a backlog of investigations. The board completed one investigation in 2020, three in 2021 and three so far this year, the report said. At least 17 investigations are currently waiting to be closed.

Katherine Lemos, the agency’s former chair, left in July, saying in a resignation letter that disputes with fellow board members “have eroded my confidence in our ability to focus” on the independent agency’s mission. Lemos was appointed by former President Donald Trump and led the agency for two years. Her departure left the five-member panel with two Senate-confirmed members, both nominated by President Joe Biden. A third Biden nominee is pending before the Senate.

With a $13 million annual budget, the board is the only federal agency charged with investigating the causes of chemical accidents, including factory explosions, refinery fires and other industrial disasters. The agency had a dozen investigators as of last month, down from more than 20 investigators in the past decade, the inspector general said.

Overall, the agency has 27 staffers out of 44 approved positions.

Trump proposed eliminating the safety board in each of his annual budgets, arguing that its focus on regulation had “frustrated both regulators and industry.” Congress funded the agency throughout Trump’s term, although staffing levels dwindled and Lemos served as the board’s sole member for nearly two years.

“The Chemical Safety Board barely survived the Trump war of attrition against it,” said Jeff Ruch, a top official at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group of current and former public employees. The watchdog group had sharply criticized Lemos and repeatedly called for her ouster.

The inspector general’s report “underlines that it is difficult for a federal agency, especially a small agency, to function when it is saddled with leadership that is inimical to its mission,” Ruch said in an email.

The current leadership, including interim executive Steve Owens, appears intent to rebuild the agency, Ruch said, although problems remain. The board is “increasingly important because our industrial infrastructure, like our public infrastructure of roads and bridges, has been aging and is becoming more vulnerable to refinery explosions and other chemical disasters,” he said.

The 17-page report by the inspector general recommends that the board quickly fill investigator and senior staff positions, ensure there are plans to hand off duties when staff members leave and update internal procedures on how reports are written and reviewed.

In a statement, Owens and board member Sylvia Johnson said the board “appreciates the inspector general’s report, and we agree that there is much work to be done to get this agency back on track.”

The agency is taking steps to hire more investigators and other mission-critical staff and has streamlined the review process for investigative reports, Owens and Johnson said.

“We look forward to an ongoing relationship with the inspector general as we tackle the many challenges facing the agency,” they said.

Owens has been nominated to chair the safety board, but the Senate has not yet acted. Senators also have not voted on Catherine Sandoval’s nomination to serve as the third board member.