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News Extra: US Environmental Protection Agency overseer says Chemical Safety Board must improve employee morale

13 November 2015

The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) must improve employee morale and carry out a higher number of investigations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector General (IG) Arthur Elkin said in a report published on October 22. The report draws on a House Republican committee hearing from 2014 alleging a “toxic work environment” and friction between staff and former chair, Rafael Moure-Eraso. 

The report was critical of past CSB retaliation against whistleblowers and Moure-Eraso’s “disregard for proper board governance.”

Although the agency has a new chairwoman, Vanessa Sutherland, the IG said the Chemical Safety Board's new leadership “needs to assure that the CSB functions as intended and restores open communication among staff, the board and the chairperson.”

The report also said the CSB, an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious industrial chemical accidents, was not investigating all the events that fell within its legal jurisdiction. It should increase the number of investigations, as well as develop a protocol for closing investigations that remain open for longer than three years, although it admitted some steps have already been taken in this area.

Finally, the report said the CSB should determine the need for a chemical reporting regulation under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The board's ability to do so has been hampered by congressional budget cuts and sequestration, the Inspector General conceded, but the CSB should also revisit its rulemaking effort.

But Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) watchdog group, was critical of the EPA report. He said the IG basing its morale claims on a Republican staff report was inappropriate and unreliable, and said the recommendation to do more investigations ignored the fact that the CSB lacked the budget to take on any more and complete them in a more timely manner.

He told Bloomberg BNA the EPA IG could have been trying to help House Republicans persecute the CSB in exchange for political support for a bigger IG budget.

“This report reinforces the notion that their work has been politically targeted in a way that is not helpful in terms of the larger issue of chemical safety,” Ruch said.

The unsettled times at the agency culminated in the resignation of chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, in March amid allegations of general mismanagement and use of private email for official board business to circumvent the system. When the White House asked Moure-Eraso to leave under growing pressure from Congress, it appeared that the controversy would die down.

But in June, shortly after CSB board member Rick Engler was granted temporary administrative authority for the board, CSB’s managing director Daniel Horowitz and general counsel Richard Loeb were suddenly placed on administrative leave.

In Loeb’s absence, Raymond Porfiri – who had worked at CSB for about 16 years and was the CSB’s deputy general counsel –was left as head of the CSB legal department. However, evidence then came to light that Porfiri was suing the agency.

His lawsuit against the CSB alleged various incidents of discrimination and failure to accommodate his injuries resulting from an April 2011 accident at his home, according to documents released by PEER.

This meant Porfiri was supervising the CSB attorney who was defending the agency against his own lawsuit, according to PEER, although this was denied by Engler, who insisted at the time there was no conflict of interest.

At the same time, several Republican-led congressional committees had been calling for reforms to the CSB and its governance. In addition, the Senate Appropriations Committee “sent the CSB an unmistakable message” in June by slashing $300,000 from its proposed budget of $11 million in fiscal year 2016. The committees cited issues related to the board’s records management, contracting, personnel management and general lack of credibility, the CSB said.
President Obama had originally requested that the CSB receive a 10% increase in funding to $12.27 million in FY2016.

At a public meeting on October 21, Vanessa Sutherland said she had met with the IG and had received a favourable response.  “We will focus on organisational health, not just morale but investigations’ status,” she said. “With four of five board members, we now have a great opportunity to get things done in these exciting times.”

In September, Sutherland embarked on a 100-day listening tour amongst CSB staffers  and outside stakeholders, and brought a number of key employees under her direct supervision in a bid to clarify reporting lines and improve staff morale.

Only by gaining her own understanding of how the $11 million, 40-employee independent investigative body operates “will we be able to distill a set priorities and execute the mission as effectively as possible,” Sutherland said. She will seek to improve governance and collegiality and address pending accident cases so the board can “‘be a voice domestically and internationally in workplace safety.”

Tensions among CSB board members “have been a challenge for many years,” she said, “so board order needs to be revisited. But with four new members, we have an opportunity to seize the day and agree that some of the [governance rules] are out of date.”

Many of the employees who “left in a huff” over the past few years are still in government, Sutherland noted. “We know some of them and would welcome them back as consultants or full-time employees.”

Sutherland is an attorney whose last position was with another public watchdog, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Before that, she was  a corporate executive at Philip Morris/Altria Client Services and held legal roles at MCI/WorldCom.

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