Chemical safety agency hampered by staff shortages

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal agency that investigates chemical accidents is hampered by understaffing, leadership disputes and a backlog of investigations that threaten its ability to protect people and the environment, according to a new report. from a federal oversight body.

The Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General’s report says the US Chemical Safety Board is “challenged by vacancies in critical positions and an inability to fully utilize the resources Congress has allocated to it.”

Leadership disputes, shoddy internal reviews and backlogs of reports “hinder the council’s ability to accomplish its mission,” Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a letter to the council’s acting leader.

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

Katherine Lemos, the agency’s former president, 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 agency’s mission. independent agency. Lemos was appointed by former President Donald Trump and led the agency for two years. His 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 an annual budget of $13 million, the board is the only federal agency responsible for investigating the causes of chemical accidents, including factory explosions, refinery fires and other industrial disasters. The agency had about a dozen investigators last month, up from more than 20 investigators over the past decade, the inspector general said.

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

Trump has proposed eliminating the safety committee from each of his annual budgets, arguing that the focus on regulation has “frustrated both regulators and industry.” Congress funded the agency throughout Trump’s tenure, though staff numbers dwindled and Lemos served as the sole board member for nearly two years.

“The Chemical Safety Board has barely survived Trump’s war of attrition against it,” said Jeff Ruch, a senior official with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group made up of current and former public employees. The watchdog group had strongly criticized Lemos and repeatedly called for his ouster.

The inspector general’s report “highlights that it is difficult for a federal agency, especially a small agency, to operate when it is grappling with leadership that is contrary to its mission,” Ruch said in an email. .

Current management, including acting director Steve Owens, appears intent on rebuilding the agency, Ruch said, although issues remain. The advice is “increasingly important because our industrial infrastructure, like our public infrastructure of roads and bridges, is aging and becoming more vulnerable to refinery explosions and other chemical disasters,” he said.

The Inspector General’s 17-page report recommends that the board quickly fill investigator and senior management positions, ensure there are plans to hand over 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 “appreciated the Inspector General’s report, and we agree that there is a lot of work to be done to get this agency back on track.” tracks”.

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

“We look forward to a continued relationship with the Inspector General as we address the many challenges facing the agency,” they said.

Owens has been nominated to chair the Security Council, but the Senate has yet to act. The senators also did not vote on the nomination of Catherine Sandoval as the third member of the board of directors.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.