Why Is Trump Trying to Kill a Small Agency with a Big Impact on Public Safety?

Yves here. If coronavirus goes much of anywhere in the US, and that looks to be reasonably likely, Trump having cut the staffing of the CDC and reducing spending on other programs and bodies tasked to protecting the public may finally get the attention it warrants. The big reason the Republicans (and their allies among the budget scold Democrats) get away with this sort of thing is these safety issues seldom rate save for workers or members of communities that are exposed to specific risks. And they are usually to small in number and spread out to have much clout.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Pipe fitter Jody Gooch and welders Sedrick Stallworth and William Rolls Jr. stood just feet away when a tank exploded at the Packaging Corporation of America pulp and paper mill in DeRidder, Louisiana. The blast killed the contract workers, injured seven others and hurtled the 80-foot tank six stories into the air.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) concluded that welding sparks likely ignited turpentine vapors that built up inside the tank, and the agency released a comprehensive incident report and safety video to protect workers at other mills.

The CSB regularly issues guidance like this so companies that use dangerous chemicals in the production process learn from their mistakes. But Donald Trump, who refuses to admit his own failures, can’t grasp the importance of learning from anyone else’s, either. Instead of supporting the safety watchdog, Trump wants to kill it.

He allocated no funding for the CSB four years in a row. As board members’ terms expired, Trump failed to replace them. The five-person board is down to just one member, whose term expires in August.

Trump likes to call himself a champion for workers.

But more workers will die if he abolishes the CSB. The people who live near these plants will be at increased risk as well because explosions, leaks and toxic emissions often inflict widespread damage on nearby communities.

Many Americans probably have never heard of the CSB. But they’re safer because of it.

Congress created the 22-year-old agency to conduct independent investigations of industrial chemical disasters.Congress considered the work so important that it shielded the agency from outside interference.

The CSB doesn’t answer to any agency or official in the executive branch. This autonomy enables it to scrutinize not only the companies involved in disasters but also the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal entities regulating these industries.

The CSB issues no fines or citations. It makes no regulations. Its mission is safety education.

The agency interviews witnesses, collects chemical samples for analysis and reviews the plant’s operating and safety records to determine how a disaster occurred. It disseminates its findings through reports, bulletins and videos. By sharing lessons learned, the CSB strives to avert future tragedies.

Since it began operating in 1998, the CSB investigated hundreds of disasters and made hundreds of safety recommendations.

Often, the CSB uncovers lapses in safety or identifies threats, such as the buildup of flammable turpentine at Packaging Corporation of America, with industry-wide implications.

The board determined that turpentine accumulated because of confusion in the mill about who was responsible for maintaining the tank. An unusual amount of air also entered the tank, making the contents especially volatile when Gooch, Stallworth and Rolls began hot work.

Thanks to the CSB’s investigation, companies know to guard against those risks.

The agency’s reports, bulletins and videos all are accessible on the board’s website. If Trump abolishes the CSB, companies, unions and workers would have no easy way of learning about hazards, other companies’ experiences, or safety trends, setting the stage for even more disasters.

The CSB does its vitally important work with a mere $12 million annual budget. Communities and workers’ lives are invaluable, and chemical-related disasters cause billions of dollars in damage to mills, plants and refineries. The CSB reported that BP alone suffered more than $1.5 billion in financial losses because of the 2005 fire and explosions at its Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 contractors and injured 180 other workers.

Yet Trump, the billionaire who loves to brag about his business skills, refuses to acknowledge the enormous return that Americans get for a minimal investment in the CSB. He fails to see the CSB for the bargain it is.

Workers, scientists and people who live near chemical plants all value the board’s work. Even corporations and Republican members of Congress support the CSB.

When Trump cut the CSB out of his 2018 budget, a vice president at Tesoro, Stephen Brown, called for sparing the agency. He did so even though the CSB criticized Tesoro’s safety practices after a 2010 fire and explosion at the company’s Anacortes, Washington, refinery that killed a supervisor and six workers represented by the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board be abolished,” Brown said.

Congress understands the CSB’s critical role, so it funded the CSB in 2018 despite Trump’s opposition. It continued funding for 2019 and 2020 after the president left the agency out of his budgets for those years as well.

Now, in his newest budget proposal, Trump wants to eliminate the agency’s regular funding for 2021. Instead, he wants to give the CSB $10 million to wind down affairs and disappear.

As he tried to starve the agency of money, Trump also gutted the board. Members rotated off at the end of their terms, and Trump refused to replace them.

Under normal circumstances, five board members—all experts in workplace safety—direct investigations and the agency’s 50 or so employees. They also travel to disaster sites and hold community meetings to keep the public informed.

The CSB operated with three board members from June 2018 until December, when Manny Ehrlich’s term expired. On Feburary 5, Rick Engler’s tenure ended. That leaves only Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, whose term expires in August.

There aren’t enough members to oversee cases or write reports. Delay undercuts the CSB’s safety mission.

Last year, Trump nominated Katherine Lemos, an official at Northrop Grumman Corp., to fill one of the vacancies. The Senate hasn’t yet voted on her confirmation. But one new board member isn’t sufficient, especially with Kulinowski’s impending departure.

Trump claims that the CSB isn’t needed because other agencies, such as the EPA, oversee the chemical and petrochemical industries. But the CSB’s importance grew as Trump’s EPA fell down on the job.

Last year, in a big gift to corporations, the EPA gutted the Chemical Disaster Rule, a series of regulations intended to force operators to take commonsense steps to prevent disasters and conduct more thorough investigations after tragedies occur.

For example, the rule required operators to consider whether new equipment or changes in the production process would improve safety. It also mandated them to conduct comprehensive investigations after a disaster—the kind the CSB performs—to identify all the contributing factors.

The CSB opposed the EPA’s rollback of the Chemical Disaster Rule. Now, if the CSB isn’t around to perform deep-dive investigations, there’s no guarantee that anybody will.

When a disaster occurs, as it did at Packaging Corporation, the victims’ families and colleagues deserve to know what went wrong. Other workers deserve to be protected from similar tragedies.

If Trump abolishes the CSB, he will subject more workers to grisly deaths. And the industry won’t learn from its mistakes. It will be doomed to repeat them.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Next agency to be dissolved – the National Transportation Safety Board. “Totally unnecessary” Trump says, “You seen one accident, you seen them all. Stop living in the past and look forward to the future” Blames then anyway for grounding that great American plane – the Boeing 737 MAX – so they got what is coming to them.

  2. John A

    It is exactly these kinds of ‘health and safety’ rules and regulations that are routinely and derogatorily described as ‘red tape’ that hinders business in Britain. I can see the Johnson government similarly emasculating these kinds of public authorities now the EU is no longer an obstacle to that.

  3. thoughtfulperson

    Yes, get rid of the “red tape”, let corporate quarterly bottom lines form the basis for every decision and then when diasters inevitably strike (2008 financial crisis is a good example ) let the public cover the cleanup *and* bailouts. Who coulda predicted diasters would happen after all???

    Here’s a few unpredictable diasters waiting to happen:

    – health care (cut CDC, dysfunctional health care leaving many without care) = epidemics

    – climate change (keep promoting fossil fuel industry adding greenhouse gas to the atmosphere) = greater losses every year due to storms, “natural” diasters, and long term, extinction

    1. rd

      The interesting thing is that the CSB, similar to the NTSB, doesn’t create red tape. They just come in after something has gone really badly wrong and help to figure it out. In their absence, it would just be up to the plaintiff’s attorneys with the final reports sealed under confidentiality as part of a settlement agreement.

      I work on a lot of design and frequently have tapped into CSB and other reports for valuable insights on where things went wrong and how to do it right next time. That type of sunshine reduces the need for red tape, instead of increasing it.

      At some point in time, people will figure out that the all-consuming focus on profits at all costs will put them in a very bad place. That is what created the rise of building codes, labor legislation, and unions in the early 20th century. We may have to repeat that experience of disasters to get the re-emergence of worker protections.

      There is a big difference between regulation and red tape. The US is awash in red tape because everybody lobbies for loopholes and exceptions, so something that could be handled in a few sheets of paper is the size of a phone book. This is a feature, not a bug, and industry has lobbied hard for it. In many cases, the paperwork creates a significant barrier of entry for competitors. We are seeing it in the financial industry with lots of paperwork required but it actually doesn’t prevent the TBTF firms from doing almost anything at all.

      1. California Bob

        re: “At some point in time, people will figure out that the all-consuming focus on profits at all costs will put them in a very bad place.”

        Don’t count on it.

  4. jackiebass

    I socialize with many republican middle class people. They have been convinced all regulations are bad and hurt business activity. If you ask them if they want a safe clean environment to live in they all say they do. If you point out regulations are needed to achieve this, their response is that markets will control it. They don’t seem to see the contradiction in their thinking. In fact they say no amount of information will change their mind.

    1. WobblyTelomeres

      I swear that there are people in this world who look just like you or just like me who consider velcro shoes a satanic puzzle.

    2. funemployed

      But the CSB doesn’t issue regulations. Do they think all education/knowledge about how to be safe are bad too?

      1. eg

        In a very real sense, they already do — it’s just that the “third worldness” isn’t evenly distributed …

    3. inode_buddha

      I too have mostly repubs/conservatives social circles. It greatly limits the possibilities for conversation. However I can completely vouch for what you are saying, their answer for *everything* is the “Free Market”.

      We already tried that back in the late 1800’s, it didn’t end well. It’s almost like the externalities of their decisions are completely invisible to them. Likewise for corruption: They seem to think that corruption is something that only the government does, being completely oblivious to it when their policies fostered it.

      Like it’s OK for the businessman to offer the congressman 100 grand to make a regulation go away, but all the bad effects are the governments fault, and people will just move away or something, and the businessman is a saint who is struggling under these conditions being imposed…

    4. mike.elwin75@yahoo.com

      Because regulations stand in the way of their getting rich, and getting rich is their highest goal. It’s even evidence that their god loves them.

  5. ChrisFromGeorgia

    Bernie or Elizabeth Warren would have a winning campaign theme here. Trump cut the CDC and the FAA resulting in a boatload of deaths and a market crash.

    But will they?

  6. d

    Cant forget cutting the CDC budget, its not like there has been any thing that they need to deal with is there?

  7. Code Name D

    Nor is the CSB that obscure. In You-tube, search for “Chemical Safety Board”, and you will find hundreds of short videos that cover some of their investigational findings. Here is one of the longer videos about the BP Texas City Explosion https://youtu.be/XuJtdQOU_Z4 A sordid tale of neglect, relentless cost cutting, and deferred maintenance.

  8. hemeantwell

    I’m struck that despite Trump’s acute dependence on Wall Street’s view of market resilience in the face of the coronavirus he chose Pence to lead the effort. Doesn’t he appreciate that Pence’s susceptibility to faith-driven delusion will not only be criticized by the Usual Haters, but also by those who want the crisis addressed in the most technically efficient manner? Who serves as Wall Street’s representative in the Oval Office when the market is in turmoil?

    1. wilroncanada

      Firstly, Trump doesn’t depend on anything, including Wall Street’s view, other than it benefits him personally. In terms of building, he really doesn’t care if private investors build or government builds, as long as he can get his tentacles in to direct some of the “investment” to himself, personally.
      He chose Pence for two reasons; one, that he does not really care how many people die, except as it may affect his personal wealth and ego. Two, that he has set up Pence as the fall guy for when things go wrong in starving health care, especially for the poor. Any major outbreak is going to spread like wildfire among the poor and elderly because of private market medical care. Privateer Pence will never socialize care, but Trump can claim this as a personal failure of Pence, rather than himself. I’m betting, if worse comes to worst, Trump will claim that he would have paid for testing, for example.
      The only thing that will change things is if one of his children comes down with a severe case of coronavirus, or perhaps a sister.

      1. kiwi

        Such ignorance.

        Really, people posting things like this need to inform themselves of what medical establishments are doing, instead of believing MSDNC.

        And this is just downright psycho:

        He chose Pence for two reasons; one, that he does not really care how many people die, except as it may affect his personal wealth and ego.

        People just can’t quit whining about Trump – were you one of the people crying “racism” when Trump shut down some travel because of the virus?

        1. jrs

          There are no reports of Trump handling it well, not on the ground either. I wish he was capable of handling it well, as it would be to all our benefit, but so far reality seems otherwise.

  9. Carla

    Please, everyone, read Mattpretz’s comment. It is posted in this comment thread above, but it’s important, so I will re-post it here:

    “Not to defend Trump.. but he’s been unsuccessful in cutting the CDC budget.. and the lack of funds in support of the safety mechanisms surrounded protections against a large scale disease outbreak predate him..


    Please avail yourselves of the link to get a more realistic picture of what’s going on.


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