After reading Southerly and WWNO/WRKF’s recent investigation, Louisiana native David LaCerte says this issue will be a priority.
This story was published in partnership with WWNO/WRKF.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board will make preparing for the threat of climate change a priority in its recommendations on how to make industrial facilities safer, said David LaCerte, the newly appointed senior advisor to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, or CSB.
LaCerte, a Louisiana native was appointed on Jan. 12 by the CSB. He said an active hurricane season in the state coupled with Southerly and WWNO/WRKF’s report emphasized the need to adopt safety measures to prevent a double disaster: a hurricane followed by a toxic release or chemical explosion.
“The reporting that was done highlighting the sheer number of facilities that are localized in Louisiana that might have a catastrophic impact should a failure occur,” LaCerte said. “It’s definitely something that all of our leaders should be concerned with.”
The CSB is an independent, nonregulatory federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents from stationary sources. Established by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the CSB determines the causes for industrial accidents and recommends how to prevent them in the future. These recommendations have informed state and federal policy.
The board’s five board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. But under the Trump administration, the CSB dwindled to one, Chairwoman and CEO Katherine Lemos. The CSB’s investigative staff, which includes chemical and mechanical engineers and industrial safety experts, has also been reduced: Former board member Rick Engler said the CSB has about half of the investigators that it once did. It also has a backlog of 18 investigations, including one from 2016.
The CSB appointed LaCerte to a three-year term as senior advisor and executive counsel. He will also assume the role of acting managing director. “David is a proven senior executive and is the perfect fit to bring institutional reform and modernization to the CSB,” Lemos said in a news release. “We look forward to his leadership in identifying and implementing new short- and long-term strategic goals, attracting and retaining top talent, and ensuring the CSB is better positioned to target and accomplish our missions for decades to come.”
But Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, said LaCerte should be removed from his new position based on allegations made against him during his tenure as Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs under former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
LaCerte grew up in Terrebonne Parish. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps before getting his law degree from Louisiana State University. Prior to his recent appointment, LaCerte served as Deputy Associate Director for the U. S. Office of Personnel Management.
In 2015, LaCerte resigned from the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs amid an investigation by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and Louisiana Office of State Inspector General. The joint investigative report concluded that LaCerte paid a company to do work without a contract and used a Ford Expedition designated for a veterans’ cemetery for headquarters’ staff. It also said LaCerte exaggerated his military record.
LaCerte called the findings by the joint investigation “unequivocally false.” In 2017, he filed a defamation lawsuit against the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and State Inspector General. Last week, an appeals court ruled against the state’s effort to throw out the case, allowing it to move forward.
“When you’re changing things up as a 32-year-old cabinet secretary that ruffles the feathers of many critics,” he told Southerly and WWNO/WRKF. “I’ve always welcomed genuine criticism as an opportunity to improve. But if a traffic cop follows you for 100 miles and is determined to find something wrong, you’re going to get pulled over.”
Engler, whose stint on the Chemical Safety Board ended in February, said the first priority should be to rebuild the agency’s investigative capacity by hiring more investigators. When Engler was appointed to the board in February 2015, there were about 20 investigators, he said. But that number was reduced to 12 under the Trump administration.
LaCerte said he wants to restaff the CSB to make the agency capable of performing more investigations to get a bigger picture of the causes of industrial accidents and how to prevent them in the future. Following an investigation into a toxic release caused by Hurricane Harvey — which sent more than 20 first responders to the hospital — the CSB recommended facilities address common equipment failures caused by extreme weather events and assess the threat of all types of potential extreme weather events.
In response, the Center for Chemical Process Safety produced guidelines to help hazardous chemical facilities better prepare for extreme weather events. But environmental groups want prevention measures written into the law.
Schaeffer, from the Environmental Integrity Project, said that companies should be required to specifically address how they’ve prepared for extreme weather events in their risk management plans, which they submit to the EPA every five years. A Southerly and WWNO/WRKF analysis identified the 30 facilities in Louisiana’s coastal zone with the most toxic chemicals stored on site, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. We found 10 scenarios that would result in toxic gases blowing 25 miles offsite. The most vulnerable cities have predominantly Black populations.
“We have a problem here. Stormwater plans are based on historic weather patterns and those don’t hold anymore,” Schaeffer said. “It’s changing and it’s changing permanently. It’s just got to be worked into the rules and worked into the permits. And that’s a big first step.”
Potential worst-case toxic releases and explosions are detailed in facility Risk Management Plans. To view the plans, residents must book an appointment at a federal reading room seven days ahead of time by leaving a message on a Department of Justice phone line. Paper copies are mailed to the reading room and residents can only take handwritten notes — no photos or scans — on the plans in the company of a U.S. Marshal. Only 10 RMPs can be viewed by an individual per month.
President Barack Obama’s administration initiated changes to the Risk Management Program to make chemical hazard information more accessible. But the Trump administration stopped the regulations from taking effect in 2017 and later rolled back most of the public information availability provisions of the rule. Earthjustice sued the EPA in Dec. 2019 for its rollback of the Obama-era improvements.
Engler said President-elect Joe Biden’s administration should go further in strengthening requirements to prevent industrial incidents than just undoing the Trump-era rollbacks. “There’s much more that needs to be done,” Engler said. “It needs to be issued with additional protections for workers and the public.”
LaCerte said that under his leadership, the CSB will work to determine root causes of chemical disasters after storms so that changes can be made to make facilities safer in the face of climate change. “I think we can all agree that this is a matter of risk,” LaCerte said. “It would not be in our best interest to totally ignore that risk.”
Among the investigations underway by the CSB is the cause of the fire and chlorine release at the BioLab facility in Westlake following Hurricane Laura in August. The cause of a chlorine release at a BioLab facility in Georgia is also being investigated.
LaCerte would not say what sort of recommendations could come out of the investigations into the chlorine releases at the BioLab facilities. “I’m going to wait until the conclusions are made,” he said. “It behooves us and it behooves the nation to examine these incidents with a lens of how can we improve?”
The CSB’s role in recommending safer practices has been essential, said Emma Cheuse, a staff attorney with the environmental law organization Earthjustice. “Communities are now facing a double emergency of chemical disasters made worse by climate change,” she said. “Fenceline communities, workers and first-responders urgently need EPA to listen to the CSB and take action on this issue.”
Sara Sneath is an award-winning environmental reporter based in New Orleans. Email her tips at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @sarasneath.