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Chemical Safety Board Seeks Boost in Funds, Less Oversight

The federal agency tasked with investigating major chemical disasters is seeking a 15 percent budget increase in fiscal 2008 to expand its investigations, while also asking lawmakers to free them from “burdensome” oversight requirements.

Carolyn Merritt, the chairman and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, made the plea for more funds during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing today, telling the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), that “significant accidents go uninvestigated because of a lack of resources.”

The board — an independent agency that investigates major chemical accidents — is seeking to increase its budget in fiscal 2008 to $10.51 million from the fiscal 2007 level of $9.1 million. The additional funds would enable the agency to increase by seven its professional staff of 33 and expand a video outreach program. Under the outreach program, CSB produces computer-animated safety videos available by download on the Internet or free by mail. Merritt said the videos are popular for training.

The board, which makes safety recommendations to prevent future accidents, has been involved in several recent high-profile investigations, including a March 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas. The board’s subsequent report urged BP to create an independent safety panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker to review the company’s facilities nationwide. CSB’s recommendations were implemented by BP, earning the agency praise.

However, the agency’s modest staff and budget has forced it to forgo reviews of other disasters. “It is precisely because of situations like this that the board needs more investigative staff,” Merritt testified. She said the panel’s findings promote reforms that can save lives and millions of dollars in economic harms.

In addition, Merritt asked the panel to free CSB from legal requirements that make it subject to oversight by other federal agencies’ inspectors general. The “burdensome and highly unusual” provision, included in a 2000 appropriations rider, effectively ties up CSB staff with information requests from EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which receives approximately $500,000 annually to oversee CSB.

“It is essentially unprecedented for an agency our size to be under continuous audit by a 300-person inspector general office from a Cabinet-level department,” Merritt told the panel. “While Congress had reasons for creating this arrangement back in 2000 — when the CSB was confronting the difficulties of starting up — it has long outlived any usefulness.”

Merritt said a CSB manager was tied up for a month responding to repeated EPA IG requests into a human resources matter that produced no guidance. “They found nothing,” she said.

While appropriations committees in the House and Senate adopted the language CSB is seeking in the109th Congress, it was omitted in the continuing resolution enacted for fiscal 2007.

Dicks said he would consider the request, but questioned whether CSB should police itself, as the board suggested. “We think you should have an inspector general,” he said.

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