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CSB draws scrutiny at House hearing

Recent track record ‘an absolute failure,’ one congressman says

Photo: House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

The Chemical Safety Board is fraught with poor leadership and mismanagement that could jeopardize safety at chemical facilities across the country, according to a government report that outlines some of the agency’s alleged failures during the past few years.

The report was released by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) in conjunction with a lengthy hearing hosted June 19 by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. During the hearing, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso defended himself and his agency of about 40 employees – arguing that the organization was asked to do more than its limited resources could allow.

However, Moure-Eraso garnered little sympathy as he spoke.

“I’m sitting up here, listening,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said as he looked at Moure-Eraso. “It seems like the fingers are pointing at you.”

The finger-pointing came from a variety of sources, including the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and former CSB member Beth Rosenberg, who resigned from the agency May 31 – only 17 months into her five-year term.

Less than three weeks after the hearing, six Republican House members, including Issa and Smith, sent a letter to the White House calling for Moure-Eraso to be replaced. The July 7 letter summarized concerns raised during the hearing and said, “Immediate change in CSB leadership is necessary to allow this besieged agency to heal and regain focus on its public safety mission.”

At the hearing, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. said his office had to file a rare “seven-day letter” because Moure-Eraso and other CSB officials failed to comply with requests for information regarding a whistleblower investigation. Elkins claims CSB repeatedly “stonewalled” his office by refusing to cooperate.

“We can’t go forward until we have the information,” Elkins said.

Moure-Eraso said he was following the advice of outside counsel in not responding to EPA OIG, and CSB officials cited attorney-client privilege in not providing requested documents to the Office of Special Counsel.

EPA OIG also discovered that CSB leadership had used non-official email accounts to conduct business, possibly to avoid investigators. In addition, Rosenberg alleged that CSB leaders intimidated staff members and required board members to declare their positions on cases before public meetings rather than conducting open, transparent debates.

“There is a chilled atmosphere,” Rosenberg said. “At the CSB, disagreement is seen as disloyalty. Criticism is not welcome, and staff fear retaliation.”

Low morale and a high turnover rate contributed to CSB’s extensive backlog of investigations into chemical plant incidents, according to critics of the agency. CSB completed only two of eight planned investigations in 2012, Elkins said, after completing five of 15 investigations in 2011 and four of eight in 2010.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) questioned the slow pace of CSB’s investigation into a 2012 Chevron refinery blast that took place in Richmond, CA. “I would suggest that shows a lack of ability to do the job,” Speier said.

Moure-Eraso said his agency was stretched thin by several high-profile incidents, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2010 explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, WA, and the 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, TX.

“I assure you we are rapidly closing our backlog,” Moure-Eraso said.

Committee members insisted that Moure-Eraso respond to EPA OIG’s requests or be subject to House subpoenas and possible criminal prosecution. Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) said CSB’s recent track record represented “an absolute failure.”

“I think lives and certainly many facilities are put at risk,” Turner said.

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