Obama administration Chemical Safety Board nominee Kristen M. Kulinowski testifies during a Senate confirmation hearing last week.
The tiny federal agency that has urged big reforms in how California regulates oil refineries is in disarray.
To some, the strife at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — the 40-person authority charged with investigating industrial accidents and recommending ways to improve safety — bears strong resemblance to the headlines from developing nations:
Its leader, seen by critics as an autocrat, is forced out before his term is up. His successor takes charge in what detractors call a backroom maneuver and moves quickly to consolidate power, ordering loyalists of the ousted regime removed from their posts with the help of armed guards.
“What is going on at the Chemical Safety Board is a little slice of the eastern Ukraine here in Washington, D.C.,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that advocates for government workers.
Meanwhile, he said, the board’s mission of pushing regulatory reform is languishing. “The industrial infrastructure is getting older, and we’re not doing anything about it.”
— Chairman Engler said that he disagrees with efforts by chemical industry lobbyists to narrow the scope of the board’s investigatory authority, but he also emphasized his belief that the board itself needs to narrow its priorities. “We are a very small agency and we can be most effective by focusing on a small number of issues,” Engler told me.
— While he says that we are currently at a critical time of the Obama administration when it comes to any potential chemical safety reforms, Chairman Engler also does what so many people in the labor community appear willing to do: Let the heads of agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration off the hook for not more aggressively using their rule-making authority these last nine years. Engler noted his own view is “there isn’t any point” in criticizing OSHA chief David Michaels for his agency’s failure to move beyond the talking stage on the CSB’s “Most Wanted” safety reform: A new federal standard on deadly combustible dust. “The bottleneck is above his level and it’s unfortunate that we have a system that puts so many hurdles in front of urgently needed standards,” Engler said.
The most impressive thing I heard from Chairman Engler, though, came when I asked him if he agreed with the conclusions of now-ousted Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso in a New York Times op-ed piece that the United States is facing “an industrial chemical safety crisis.” Chairman Engler said:
I think there is a continuing crisis and under my watch I don’t want to wake up in the morning and hear about the next disaster where we have multiple facilities. I really genuinely believe that enough is enough.