Last week, President Joe Biden nominated three new members to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

While that may sound pretty routine or mundane, this is the board for the agency responsible for investigating the April 2018 Husky Energy refinery explosion and fire in Superior and the mass evacuations that followed across the Twin Ports. It’s also the same agency that President Donald Trump proposed cutting on three separate occasions, leading to a mass exodus of its experienced investigators, a board of only one, and a backlog of work critical to public safety and to avoiding repeats of the sort of fear that swept across Duluth and Superior that terrible and unforgettable day.

Biden’s nominations came three years, almost to the day, of the Husky explosion — and less than one week after News Tribune reporter Jimmy Lovrien’s investigative report on the board’s lack of members and investigators and its deeply concerning resulting backlog of investigations.

While nominating and appointing new board members can be an important first step toward addressing all the can’t-be-left-unfinished work, much more demands to happen to restore the board and agency, its funding, and its critical public-safety watchdog role.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation agency, or CSB, has 20 outstanding investigations right now, dating as far back as 2016, according to the News Tribune report. The Husky incident is its fourth-oldest open investigation, and the final investigative report on Husky had been due two years ago.

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The CSB also has 108 open recommendations, has not released a final investigation report since December 2019, and has opened nine new investigations during that time.

“Having only one member impairs the function of the CSB, as all functions rest with that one member,” a July 2020 Inspector General’s report states, according to the story. “(The) workload limitations arising from one board member attempting to perform the work of five affect the accomplishment of the board’s technical responsibilities, including accident reconstruction, safety engineering, human factor identification, toxicology reviews, and air pollution regulation assessments.”

So pressure has been aplenty on Biden and his administration to sufficiently fund the agency and restore its board. That includes from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who joined other senators in March in a letter to Biden.

“This is especially concerning given that the core mission of the agency is to provide for chemical safety changes through lessons learned from previous incidents,” the senators wrote. “The CSB cannot effectively accomplish that mission with only a single board member in place.”

Even the usually head-butting United Steelworkers labor union and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade organization that represents refiners, collaborated on a letter to the president. The current state of the CSB is so concerning, even they were able to find common ground.

“While our respective organizations sometimes have alternative perspectives on given issues, a superseding common goal throughout both organizations is safety in the workplace," their letter said. "We believe that a fully constituted CSB, properly funded and managed, greatly contributes to this shared objective. … Finally, in order to be successful in its mission, the CSB must have adequate funding to attract, train and retain qualified staff investigators."

As Lovrien importantly pointed out, although the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is not a regulatory agency and can't issue fines or penalties, its investigations can dig into an incident’s root cause and its recommendations can shape industry standards. The importance of the preventative steps that can then be taken is difficult to overstate.

In order for the agency to do its work effectively and with urgency, a fully appointed board, an adequate number of investigators, and an appropriate level of funding are needed. Look no further than those of us still waiting for the final investigative report into one of the scariest days in Twin Ports history — so we can know not only what happened and how but also how it can be prevented — for the need for Biden’s appointments last week to just be the start of restoring the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.