July 31, 2020 / 4:14 PM / 10 days ago

U.S. chemical safety watchdog to proceed, with only one board member

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which has only one board member instead of the usual five, on Friday postponed a scheduled public meeting that was to include discussion of its plans to operate even as President Donald Trump pushes to shut the watchdog agency responsible for probing major chemical accidents.

Chairperson Katherine Lemos, a Trump appointee and the sole member of the historically five-person board, had scheduled the meeting to discuss investigations and plans to “carry out its important safety mission,” CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said before the event was canceled.

The meeting was postponed because of technical problems with the conference call service that was to link Lemos and CSB staffers. The agency has not set a date for a new meeting.

The meeting in part was to discuss the possible release of results of an investigation on a 2018 explosion at a Pasadena, Texas, ethylene plant, as well as “how (the board) will move forward with a ‘quorum of one,’” the CSB said.

Lemos’ plan to keep operating as a board of one would allow it to issue final reports, which lay out the root causes of fires and explosions at chemical plants and refineries. It would also allow her to change the status of recommendations the CSB makes to industry and agencies.

Labor and industry groups have protested the Trump administration’s efforts to cut CSB funding and leave positions unfilled. The board has no regulatory or enforcement powers, but its final reports and recommendations often shine a spotlight on industry and regulatory agency failures leading to changes in operations and new rules.

“The CSB is one of the best deals in Washington,” said Michael Wright, a safety official with the United Steelworkers union which has advocated full funding for the agency. “Three of Donald Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago are equal to the CSB’s entire budget. Which is a better deal for the American people?” asked Wright, citing government spending records.

The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies on behalf of U.S. chemical makers, also would like to see the board’s five spots filled, said a spokesman.

“We support the CSB having all its members and the board being adequately funded,” said spokesman Scott Jensen. “We’ve not said that to the White House, we’ve said that to Congress.”

Trump previously sought to eliminate funding for the CSB and proposed to cut its $12 million budget in the next fiscal year.

Lemos was Trump’s first nomination and was confirmed for her 5-year term by the Senate in March 2020, after the terms of other board members expired in December and January. The agency has a staff of 47 people.

Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Dan Grebler

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