Staff vacancies, infighting plague chemical safety agency | Environment

Staffing shortages and infighting among a dwindling number of decision-makers are hampering investigations of chemical fires, explosions and other petrochemical industry accidents in Louisiana and across the country, according to a new federal inspector’s report.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, commonly known as the CSB, has yet to fill three vacancies on its five-member governing board, and the agency has several “mission-critical” staff positions that have remained unfilled for more than year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s office of inspector general said in the report. These leadership and staffing gaps are making it difficult for the agency to investigate a growing backlog of chemical accidents, the report said. 

“Two new top management challenges … may prevent the CSB from efficiently and effectively driving chemical safety change through independent investigations that protect people and the environment,” the inspector general’s office said.







BioLab fire and firefighters

Crews train water late Thursday afternoon on the chemical fire at the sprawling BioLab Inc. complex in Westlake, just west of Lake Charles, which caught fire after Hurricane Laura passed over early Thursday morning, Aug. 27, 2020. Chlorine gas caused a shelter in place order to be issued.




The CSB investigates the causes of chemical accidents and issues recommendations to plants, regulatory agencies, and business and labor groups. The agency doesn’t issue fines, instead relying on voluntary compliance and safety improvements. Established in 1998, the agency had been a target for elimination under former President Donald Trump’s administration. 

When properly staffed, the CSB has helped make Louisiana communities safer, said Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

“They did an excellent job when they had staff to evaluate the causes of the big chemical accidents and fires and big releases,” she said. “Not having enough inspectors leaves a big vacuum, and that has negative impacts on the communities along the (chemical plant) fence lines.”

The CSB has an important oversight role in Louisiana, the second-largest chemical producer in the nation after Texas. Last year, Louisiana’s production of gasoline, plastics, bleach and other chemicals was valued at more than $44 billion, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Toxic chemical releases, fires and explosions are common in some communities. A Jan. 26 explosion at a Westlake plant near Lake Charles was almost identical to one that occurred a few months prior at another Westlake plant nearby. The two incidents injured at least 29 workers. 







EPA chemical disaster rule delay challenged by Louisiana environmental group

Law enforcement closes LA 30 after a fire at the Williams Olefins plant near Geismar on Thursday, June 13, 2013. (Photo by Brett Duke, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)


The CSB has completed investigations of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010, the Williams Olefins Plant explosion that killed two people in Geismar in 2013, the Packaging Corporation of America explosion that killed three people in DeRidder in 2017, and four other large-scale incidents in Louisiana over the past 25 years.

The agency’s investigations backlog includes the three-day-long fire and massive release of toxic gas at the BioLab plant near Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura in 2020. The CSB is also still working on incidents in Texas that were triggered by Hurricane Harvey more than five years ago.

Over the past three years, the CSB had a staff attrition rate of 22%, the report said. By comparison, the EPA’s attrition rate during the same period was 7%. Last year, the CSB lost nine managers, including its human resources director, staff attorney and chief information officer. Between 2019 and early 2022, the agency had no managing director. The position was filled in February, but the person quit after less than three months.

The agency was allocated a 24% boost in full-time employees last year, but few positions have been filled. As of August, the CSB had 12 investigators to cover incidents across the country. The agency had funding for five more investigator positions, but were unfilled as of August, according to the report.







NO.lakecharleslaura_33.JPG

WESTLAKE- A chemical fire over Westlake following Hurricane Laura in southwest Louisiana on Thursday, August 27, 2020.




The CSB did not respond to a request for comment or updates on staffing levels.

The agency’s problems are partially rooted in fights between its board and the chief executive officer, which are all appointed by the president.

The report notes “months-long conflict” involving the board and Katherine Lemos, a Trump administration appointee who served as both board chairperson and the agency’s director.

In early 2021, the board had four vacancies, leaving Lemos as the sole member. She altered the agency’s governing rules, giving the chairperson the authority to make most decisions independently of the board.







EPA chemical disaster rule delay challenged by Louisiana environmental group

Ambulances line LA 3115 after a fire at the Williams Olefins plant near Geismar on Thursday, June 13, 2013. (Photo by Brett Duke, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)


The Biden administration appointed two board members, Sylvia Johnson and Steve Owens, in late 2021. After their confirmation in April, the new members tried to change the rules back, but Lemos suspended the vote, the report said. Lemos resigned in July, saying in a letter that the board’s priorities had “eroded my confidence in our ability to focus” on the agency’s mission.

The board still has just two members, negatively affecting the agency’s productivity and ability to hire new staff, the report says.

When the CSB is dysfunctional, Louisiana suffers, Subra said.

“When they have conflicts or they’re not getting investigators out in the field, it means we’re not identifying what happened during accidents,” she said. “And that means they can happen again.”

Explosion at Westlake Corp. plant one of many incidents in Lake Charles area.

I said, “Dear Lord, you mean to tell me I’m being honored for the work that you told me to do?” 

This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which are members of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

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