A PLAN by US President Donald Trump to “eliminate” the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has led to warnings that the move would put lives at risk.
Christine Whitman, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Reuters: “If you want to put the American people in danger this is the way to do it.”
Trump announced plans to cut CSB funding in a budget proposal published late last week. The CSB investigates accidents in the chemical industry and makes recommendations to prevent future accidents and improve safety. High profile investigations include BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. On first glance the decision to eliminate the CSB appears to run in direct opposition to the priority of Trump’s budget.
“I submit to the Congress this budget blueprint to reprioritise federal spending so that it advances the safety and security of the American people,” he wrote.
Reacting to the news, former CSB chair John Bresland told The Chemical Engineer that he was “shocked” by the decision.
“The CSB's budget of approximately US$11m/y is money well spent in preventing worker injuries and fatalities and the multibillion-dollar costs of catastrophic incidents,” he said.
“If it is eliminated there will be no public information about what caused the serious incidents that occur with an unfortunate regularity.”
The decision to cut funding passes to the legislative branch of government, which must now review and sign off the budget.
“The chemical and oil industry trade organisations need to be vocal in their support of continued funding for the CSB,” Bresland added. “I will be talking to my representatives in Washington to explain the value of the CSB.”
Trish Kerin, director of the IChemE Safety Centre, echoed Bresland’s concerns.
“The CSB was formed in the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy and is a leading example of how learnings can be distilled and shared after a catastrophic incident. Without these learnings being shared many more lives could have been lost.”
“These learnings have helped improve safety in both the US and many other countries around the world. The valuable resources produced by this independent agency are widely used in industry globally. The ISC would like to see the CSB continue to contribute to process safety for many years to come,” Kerin said.
Looking to what the US would do if the CSB were scrapped, Judith Hackitt, former chair of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), told The Chemical Engineer: “If it ceases to exist then I suspect that when the next major chemical incident does occur in the US an ad hoc equivalent inquiry team will need to be invented.”
Deb Grubbe, president of Operations and Safety Solutions consultancy, said she believes Trump is challenging the CSB to prove its worthiness to survive.
“Government waste and agency jurisdictional duplication do need to be addressed, and Trump campaigned on that very point. The President is being consistent,” Grubbe told The Chemical Engineer.
“We have to ask ourselves, could other government entities do the CSB’s work? […] The work of the CSB may not go away, but the agency, as it is currently formed, may not survive.
“The initial budget position is classic Trump – everything can be a negotiation, and the elimination of the CSB is his first bargaining chip on the table.”
Grubbe said the CSB provides a vital function but believes there might be better way to carry out the work.
“In my experience, I have seen OSHA and the CSB work at cross purposes to each other during incident investigations. These jurisdictional disputes are sometimes not a productive use of the taxpayers’ monies, and perhaps some of this can be addressed by asking the larger question about what is the best way to do this work?”
Grubbe said she is concerned that people are not approaching the decision with an open mind and that it is important for the community to provide fact-based apolitical input.
Whether a wider public debate will be possible remains to be seen. Industry and trade bodies have remained quiet on the proposals, while a number of safety experts contacted by The Chemical Engineer would not comment for fear of being refused entry to the US or because getting company clearance would be too arduous.
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