After a year of having just one board member and a growing backlog of cases, the federal agency investigating the Husky refinery blast in Superior could soon have more members.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday nominated three people to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Former President Donald Trump had proposed cutting the agency three times, and only replaced one board member. Those actions led to an exodus of experienced investigators, a board of one and backlog of investigations, including the agency's inquiry into the April 26, 2018 Husky refinery explosion and fire in Superior, a former CSB employee told the News Tribune last week.
The nominations come after letters from U.S. senators, labor and industry groups urged Biden to fill the open seats.
In a statement Thursday, CSB Chairman and CEO Katherine Lemos, the lone board member since May 2020, welcomed the nominations.
“This additional support from such technically strong and professionally proficient candidates will strengthen our advocacy and outreach efforts to make chemical facilities safer for workers, communities and the environment,” Lemos said. “Board members play an important role in reviewing and voting on investigative reports and safety studies, as well as advocating for the CSB’s recommendations at the federal, state and local levels to ensure the necessary steps are taken to minimize the potential for another tragic accident, and I look forward to working with them to strengthen our agency.”
The nominations came on Biden's 99th day in office. During that time, his administration had not indicated to the agency whether it intended to fill the board seats. Even as of April 23, a CSB spokesperson told the News Tribune that the agency had not yet heard from the Biden administration about filling the open seats.
An Inspector General’s report in July 2020 warned the agency would not be able to operate properly with just one board member.
“Having only one member impairs the function of the CSB, as all functions rest with that one member … workload limitations arising from one board member attempting to perform the work of five affect the accomplishment of the board’s technical responsibilities," the report said.
According to a news release from the White House, the nominated board members are:
Sylvia E. Johnson, who works for the National Education Association in the Government Relations department. She has a doctorate from Old Dominion University in Urban Health Services Research with a concentration in Occupational and Environmental Health.
Steve Owens, who works as an attorney for Squire Patton Boggs (U.S.) LLP in Phoenix, Arizona. He previously served as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
Jennifer Sass, who works as a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit organization. She earned her doctorate from the University of Saskatchewan, College of Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology and earned a post-doctoral certificate from the University of Maryland, College of Medicine, Program in Human Health and the Environment.
The Senate must approve the nominees.
The CSB will release its first investigation report since December 2019 next week. The agency currently has 20 open investigations dating back to 2016. Husky is the fourth-oldest open investigation.
The final report on Husky was expected in mid-2019. The CSB spokesperson last week would not provide an updated release date.
Though the CSB is not a regulatory agency — it can't issue fines or penalties — its investigations can dig into an incident’s root cause and its recommendations can shape industry standards.