By Gary McWilliams
(Reuters) - President Donald Trump's proposal to do away with the federal agency that investigates chemical accidents drew sharp criticism from environmental, labor and safety advocates, who said that eliminating the watchdog would put American lives at risk.
Christine Todd Whitman, the former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head, on Thursday called the proposal to get rid of Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and cut EPA funding short-sighted, saying both have long been an industry target for advocating greater public information on chemicals.
"If you want to put the American people in danger this is the way to do it," she said of the president's proposal to cut the CSB's funding entirely from the 2018 federal budget. "The chemical industry has fought back from the beginning."
The CSB investigates major chemicals accidents to search for their causes and makes recommendations that could prevent a recurrence. It has no regulatory power, but is influential because its recommendations are often adopted by industry, labor, government officials, the EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The president on Thursday outlined a plan for fiscal 2018 discretionary spending, which exclude programs like Social Security, that removes allocations for 19 independent bodies, including the CSB and Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The CSB, which has an annual budget of about $12 million, defended its work, saying its work has broadly improved safety. "As this process moves forward, we hope that the important mission of this agency will be preserved," the agency said in a statement.
Chemical and energy industry officials offered limited comment on the proposal. Petroleum and refining industry groups, Exxon Mobil Corp, BP plc and Tesoro Corp did not respond or declined to comment directly on the potential phase out.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents major chemicals producers, said in a statement it would work with the administration and Congress to "ensure EPA has funding to carry out essential responsibilities." It did not comment directly on the CSB.
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade group, said it looked "forward to working with the administration and Congress as all of these issues work their way through the budget process."
Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at the United Steelworkers union, said the CSB's recommendations generally have been welcome by labor and industry. One such recommendation that stemmed from a fatal 2005 refinery incident included barring portable trailers that cannot withstand an explosion.
The board's reviews of major accidents have proved significant. Its probes have led to industry standards on worker fatigue, greater reporting of hazardous chemicals to first responders, and have prompted companies to keep workers not directly involved in projects out of harm's way.
In California, many of the board’s safety recommendations have been drafted into law. For example, the state worker safety agency, known as Cal/OSHA, has doubled its investigative staff based on CSB recommendations.
"This is one of the best bargains in Washington," said the USW's Wright. "If it has prevented even one accident, it has saved far more money than its budget over its entire history."
Its probe of the fatal Deepwater Horizon rig explosion was controversial because of its two-year length and extensive need for outside help. The work led to new standards for safety in the offshore oil industry and in well equipment.
But some recommendations have not been yet been implemented. After a fatal 2013 explosion in West, Texas, that killed 12 first responders the CSB proposed facilities that store large amounts of fertilizer be covered by emergency planning laws that give first responders more information. That remains open.
Beth Rosenberg, a former CSB board member and now an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, said the CSB "does excellent work; other countries admire this agency." She said opponents "don't know what they're doing here or how useful this board is."
(Additional reporting by Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba; Editing by Ernest Scheyder and Diane Craft)