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U.S. Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., has joined a group of bipartisan House committee leaders in demanding answers from the federal oversight board charged with investigating industrial chemical incidents about its ability to conduct investigations.

McKinley and five other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to the chairman and CEO of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board on May 20 calling for information regarding management, resources, and personnel challenges that the board faces.

The Chemical Safety Board has been dogged by a board member shortage and self-identified staffing gaps.

Composed of members appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the board currently has featured one member, Chairman and CEO Katherine A. Lemos, instead of the usual five, for the past 11 months.

President Joe Biden nominated three people to the board last month, but the board still faces a backlog of 20 open investigations, including one from 2016. Last week, the board released its first final report on a chemical incident since December 2019, when it issued its final report on two explosions that killed three people in Barbour County.

“We are concerned a mounting backlog could potentially result in some recommendations from older investigations being outdated by the time they are finally issued,” the committee members wrote.

Chemical Safety Board spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said in a brief statement Monday that the board would respond to Energy and Commerce Committee staff in a timely fashion.

The Chemical Safety Board is currently investigating the Dec. 8 explosion at Optima Belle’s chemical facility in Belle that killed one worker and injured two others.

The Chemical Safety Board has played an especially prominent role in West Virginia, as only Texas has been the focus of more agency investigations since 2006.

The board has conducted seven investigations of incidents that killed 14 people in West Virginia since 2007, including four investigations of incidents in Kanawha County. Six completed investigations resulted in 35 formal recommendations on which the board deemed action successfully completed.

McKinley and other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the board to address various concerns, including the number of vacancies for each job category, an update on the status of filling each vacancy, the status of all open investigations, the expected timeframe for completing each investigation, and the impact and limitations of having a single board member.

A July 2020 federal inspector general’s audit found one board member trying to take on the work of five made the agency less productive in its responsibilities of accident reconstruction, safety engineering, human factor identification, toxicology reviews and air pollution regulation assessments.

“Having a quorum of one, even if permissible, impairs the [board] mission for reasons of both workload management and separation of duties,” the report stated. The agency’s regulatory language does not specify whether a single board member may constitute a quorum — a crucial matter since agency staff [a contingent of 33 as of September] lack the authority to carry out such functions as budgeting, planning, oversight and approval of investigations.

The board’s members dwindled one by one under former President Donald Trump. The former president chose no new members after previous members resigned following his appointment of Lemos in 2019.

The board’s diminution in size and capability, coupled with the Trump administration’s repeated but unimplemented proposals to scrap the agency by zeroing out its budget, underlined its importance to industry stakeholders, despite the agency lacking enforcement power.

Last year, the United Steelworkers backed the board as its contingent dropped. One of the board’s health, safety and environment executives testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in January that board investigations have helped United Steelworkers gain an increased ability to recognize system failures, see hazards and acknowledge the importance of engineering controls to guard against repeat incidents.

After the Trump administration suggested eliminating the board, the American Society of Safety Engineers defended the agency, saying occupational safety and health professionals depend on its chemical incident reports and safety bulletins.

Reach Mike Tony at mtony@hdmediallc.com, 304-348-1236 or follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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