Sustained Outrage

Horowitz seeks return to Chemical Safety Board job

Lise Olsen has a story for the Houston Chronicle that folks who follow worker safety issues and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will want to check out:

Horowitz_OfficialThe managing director of a federal agency assigned to investigate the nation’s worst chemical accidents publicly asked this week to be allowed to return to work after being suspended for four months, according to information released on his behalf by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Dr. Daniel Horowitz, a Ph.D. chemist, led the U.S. Chemical Safety Board since 2010 but was placed on paid administrative leave on June 16 pending an investigation into “possible misconduct.” That leave has been extended twice, leaving the agency without its top administrator even as it conducted probes into an accident that killed four at the DuPont plant in La Porte, among other major accidents nationwide.

Importantly, Lise’s story notes:

The small agency has had no further deployments since March – despite a series of fatal accidents, fires and explosions reported at chemical plants. One incident involved a tank explosion at a Louisiana plant owned by Williams Partners, which already was the subject of another CSB probe. Another incident involved a fire that injured four at a SunEdison plant in Pasadena.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told Lise:

From what we can tell, the main thing the CSB is now investigating is its own executive staff.

Lise’s story said:

The CSB itself did not immediately issue a response. Its board meets Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss ongoing probes, including review of the West Fertilizer plant explosion, the DuPont La Porte gas leak and the accident at the plant owned by Williams Partners in Louisiana.

We’ve reported several times before about the controversies at the CSB, and how its previous investigation backlog was really a sign of the Obama administration’s weak support for worker safety and health issues, how the board governance disputes at the agency are nothing new, and about how the board’s biggest critics are political leaders that otherwise show little interest in public safety and health issues of the kind the board is charged with investigating.

This new Houston Chronicle story is based on new information released yesterday by PEER, which said that open-ended involuntary administrative leave without cause violates federal rules and, the complaint points out, is an abuse of the civil service merit system. PEER said:

For the past four months, Dr. Horowitz has been under bureaucratic house arrest – banned from entering CSB offices, blocked from agency email access, forbidden to speak with CSB employees or do any official business yet he must be on call during working hours. Earlier this month, after he was first contacted by the firm retained in June to for the misconduct investigation, Dr. Horowitz requested legal assistance from PEER in extricating him from this prolonged professional limbo.

“We are disappointed that one of Chair Sutherland’s first acts was to perpetuate merit system abuse,” added Ruch, noting that she also recently posted a new “Board Affairs Specialist” position with a $99,000 salary rage for only one week, presumably to hire a preselected candidate. “If every federal employee under any sort of investigation was sent home, the halls of government would soon be an echo chamber.”

Despite his current status as a political football, Dr. Horowitz has worked at CSB for 15 years reporting to a series of Democratic and Republican agency heads. He is also a prominent and recognized chemical safety specialist responsible in whole or part for many of the Board’s more successful initiatives, such as its acclaimed safety video program and critical recommendations on refinery safety.