It’s a safe assumption that most Americans have not heard of the US Chemical Safety Board. Donald Trump is certainly banking on that, since he proposed scrapping it in his recent budget proposal. But if the small agency is indeed defunded, the results could be catastrophic—and we might be left wondering, as the bodies are counted after some large chemical disaster, why nobody was angry when the CSB went away.
Modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, which famously investigates plane crashes and explains to everyone what happened, the CSB choppers into chemical plants after a serious accident, particularly when dangerous chemicals were released or workers were killed. The engineers at CSB do a detailed, sometimes years-long process audit of what went wrong, and then puts out a report. (If you want to get lost in a fascinating YouTube rabbit hole, check out the CSB’s channel, which has developed a small cult following for its well-produced explanations of complex chemical accidents.)
The CSB is not a regulatory body, and it doesn’t have rule-making power. That actually makes its job easier, because chemical producers throw up fewer roadblocks to CSB investigators as they labor to pinpoint what went wrong. The agency’s work is critical because most federal regulators who also investigate chemical accidents—the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Health and Safety Administration—look almost exclusively at what existing regulations were violated, if any.
But the CSB takes a much broader view to its accident investigations. It studies the causes of dangerous chemical accidents outside of existing rules, and often unearths process problems regulators don’t yet know about. It recommends best practices going forward, and these recommendations are often used to write new regulations at the state and federal levels. It’s not unusual for the industry itself to look at CSB recommendations and implement them voluntarily.
If Trump succeeds in defunding the CSB, that’s work that will largely be left undone—in a nation with a creaking chemical-production infrastructure. It’s expensive to shutter old chemical plants because of remediation costs, and many are being extended past their planned lifetimes. The federal government doesn’t track chemical accidents—a small scandal in itself—but best estimates seem to indicate an uptick. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and the large explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, are the most memorable accidents of the past decade; in West, 15 people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed in 2013. Forty-six people have died in US chemical plants since then.