The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is under fire from all sides — again — and it appears that inner turmoil is making it even harder for this small government agency to do its terribly important job.
Yesterday, a House of Representatives committee released a report and heard testimony that detailed problems at the CSB. Headlines were using words like “disarray” to describe the situation. The Hill described the basic situation this way:
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called Thursday for the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to resign, an opinion shared by a bipartisan group of members on the oversight panel.
The call came during a hearing on allegations of dysfunctional management by Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and accusations that he and his staff sought to silence whistleblowers and others who disagreed with him.
“You really need to ask whether or not in your last year, you can really undo the damage of your first five,” Issa said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he had “serious questions about your fitness to hold your job.”
“It is clear that there are serious management problems that need to be addressed,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Ga.), the panel’s top Democrat.
At the center of the hearing were allegations from CSB staff that an employee of the Office of Special Counsel had told top CSB officials the identifies of whistleblowers in 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General, which also has authority over the CSB, investigated the issue, but agency staff did not provide requested materials.
The basic allegations are covered in this report, written by the staff of the Republican-controlled committee. There’s also additional testimony from Moure-Eraso here and from board member Mark Griffon here. Former board member Beth Rosenberg, who resigned in late May over problems inside the agency, testified about what the “chilled atmosphere” at the CSB and about what she said was a “lack of accountability” and a “lack of transparency” at the board. Testimony described a toxic atmosphere among board members and top agency staff. Rosenberg put it this way:
There are no opportunities for staff and board members to discuss issues openly. Those whose opinions differed from senior leadership or the chair are marginalized and vilified. At the CSB, disagreement is seen as disloyalty. Criticism is not welcome and staff fear retaliation.
Testimony and the GOP staff report raise serious issues — things like the potential outing of agency whistle-blowers, major votes and decisions all being made in secret instead of in public meetings, and stonewalling an Inspector General’s investigation. Issa, the Republican committee chairman, said:
Rather than addressing experienced investigators’ concerns about agency mismanagement, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board leadership has stifled internal debate and retaliated against agency whistleblowers. Mismanagement under the current CSB leadership has created a hostile work environment, distracting the Board from fulfilling its core mission to investigate industrial accidents and issue incident safety reports in a timely manner. Real reform is needed at the CSB to restore collegiality, staff morale, and the integrity of the agency.
On the other hand, a lengthy piece posted on the website Truthout (no doubt based at least in part on material leaked by one side of this CSB dispute in anticipation of the congressional hearing) painted a different picture:
Earlier this year, after a contentious and disastrous January public meeting to approve a report on the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California, all four investigative supervisors and team leads sent a strongly worded memorandum to two board members, Beth Rosenberg and Mark Griffon, entitled “Restoring Trust.” This memorandum bared forward alleged disconcerting behavior from June 2013 to try to get these two board members to stop the hostility and work with the chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and the staff. Truthout obtained a copy of this memorandum and other documentation. This now-released document, that can be seen in full here, paints a very different picture of what is causing dangerous delays in the agency’s reports than the picture portrayed at public meetings and previous media stories.
The February 10, 2014 memorandum to board members Beth Rosenberg and Mark Griffon by four staff members, Don Holmstrom, Johnnie Banks, Cheryl Mackenzie and Dan Tillema, included uncharacteristically strong language for any federal government agency. For example, the first sentence pulled no punches about the intent of the memorandum:
We are writing to you as the entire CSB Investigation Team Leads/Supervisors group to express our serious concerns regarding Board members’ behavior that has done significant damage to the morale of the investigative personnel and the mission of the CSB.
Some of these issues about turmoil at the CSB have been covered in much detail before, especially by this story from the good folks at the Center for Public Integrity. But as I’ve reported before, in many ways, some of the key issues at the CSB — from the backlog of investigations to the bickering between board members and staff — could be symptoms of the much larger problem of the lack of attention the federal government (even the Democratic Obama administration) has given to workplace and community safety:
Today, the board is under fire for a backlog of unfinished investigations. The agency’s Inspector General wrote a tough report alleging mismanagement. Lawmakers questioned why investigations of workplace accidents in their own districts drag on uncompleted.
Longtime advocates for improved safety and environmental protections at the nation’s chemical plants and other industrial facilities, including some who have closely watched the board for years, say the CSB’s problems are really just a symptom of broader troubles and misplaced national priorities — of frequent indifference to worker safety and public health issues by the political system.
The board remains a tiny federal agency, with just 43 employees and an annual budget of only $10.5 million. Promised increases in funding aimed at helping with the massive Deepwater Horizon probe and adding a fourth investigation team never materialized.
In fact, the exact sort of internal battle that’s going on now — a disagreement that’s based partly in a dispute over the role of the board chair and the other board members and senior staff — is nothing new from the Chemical Safety Board. Longtime followers of the CSB will recall that then-Chairman Paul Hill resigned in 1999 over the same sort of bickering. Here’s part of a story I wrote at the time of that dispute:
A battle between the chairman and members of a new national chemical safety board could come to a head today in Washington, D.C. Paul Hill, chairman of the board, is under fire from board members. They want to make more of the agency’s decisions. Hill says the chairman should control day-to-day activities, while board members set broad policy on technical and scientific issues.
Board members Irv Rosenthal and Gerald Poje complained that they had no input on board budgets, selection of accidents to investigate, or contract decisions, Chemical and Engineering News said. They asked Hill to hold a public meeting so their concerns could be aired, and so that they could hear from industry, labor and the public about the dispute.
Compare that to what current board member Mark Griffon told Congress this week:
The Board has been excluded from key policy decisions including draft proposals for legislative reform, proposals to eliminate the EPA IG oversight through an appropriations rider, decisions regarding federal agency data requests and requests to delay CSB reports. I believe the Board must implement governance reforms to ensure the Board Members have a means to raise and deliberate on policy matters, based on majority board decisions.
In fact, if you compare some of the things that Chairman Moure-Eraso and former board member Beth Rosenberg said in yesterday’s hearing … well, let’s just say there’s more common ground that the fist-pounding by the lawmakers might suggest.
For example, Rosenberg said this:
The CSB faces certain challenges in fulfilling its mission that are beyond its control. It is intended to be an expert advisory body, similar to the National Transportation Safety Board, but it has no means — other than the weight of its evidence — to ensure its recommendations are implemented. With current staffing and resources, it cannot possibly investigate all the incidents and deaths that it should.
And here’s Moure-Eraso in that same hearing:
We are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle … We are accomplishing our mission on a shoestring budget of just around 11 million dollars and a staff that is under fifty total employees.
All of the infighting makes for a great congressional hearing, especially for someone like Chairman Issa. And some of it — especially the stuff about a “toxic environment” and board members bickering — makes for good copy. Who doesn’t love to see lawmakers asking what appear to be tough questions about bad behavior by government officials, wasted taxpayer dollars or coverups? But suppose Moure-Eraso resigned tomorrow … would the Republican leadership in the House then have a plan to give the CSB the money and other resources it needs to better do its crucial job? Would lawmakers start sprinkling appropriations bills for agencies like EPA and OSHA with language that mandates action on urgent board safety recommendations?
Political theater is all fun and games … until another chemical plant blows up.