National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told lawmakers on Friday that the federal government shutdown has put the brakes on her agency conducting thousands of accident investigations.
Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Hersman said the NTSB has furloughed almost all of its employees, going from 405 employees to just 22.
The result, she said, has been a host of unfinished investigations.
"Here is what we are not doing in the 10 days that have passed since the shutdown: Fourteen accidents have occurred in which we have not dispatched investigators, including an eight-fatal bus crash that occurred in Tennessee, a four-fatal general aviation accident that occurred in Arizona and a worker fatality that occurred just blocks from here on Washington's Metro system," Hersman told the committee.
The NTSB chief said the safety investigation agency's rules only allow it to act in cases where there are "imminent threats to safety of human life or protection of property" during a shutdown of the federal government.
In addition to the accidents involving a bus and the Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system, Hersman told lawmakers that the NTSB has been forced to delay completing investigations into accidents on the Metro North commuter railway in New York City and the crash of an Asiana Airlines airplane in San Francisco earlier this year.
Hersman said the NTSB has also been unable to assist international transportation safety agencies in their investigations.
"As one of the preeminent safety inspection agencies in the world, we routinely field request from our domestic and international colleagues to provide technical expertise in their investigations, such a reading flight recorders," she said. "In the last 10 days we have declined two international requests for assistance and one request from the State Department for support. ... While we are shut down, the NTSB is not able to fully represent U.S. interest in aviation around the world."
Hersman said the NTSB would be able to launch an investigation if a large-scale transportation accident happened during the shutdown, but she cautioned that it would have to be major.
"In the last 10 days, we have identified five accident investigations that met the legal requirements for accepting employees from furlough," she said.
"In the event of a major transportation event that meets the legal criteria for bringing employees back from furlough, we will launch a limited investigative team," Hersman continued. "However, you should know that the investigations would be just that, very limited."
The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), sympathized with Hersman's complaints about the lack of government funding.
"I regret that I had to call this hearing today. This shutdown is doing great harm to our country, and it was totally avoidable," he said. "All we needed was a House of Representatives willing to accept reality and the clean [funding] bill the Senate has sent them. "