The new CSB
Following inner turmoil and amid new accusations of misconduct, the Chemical Safety Board moves forward with reforms
The Chemical Safety Board has approved reforms intended to increase transparency and accountability at the agency. The move, described by CSB’s temporary executive as putting “our house in order,” follows years of criticism leveled at the board’s former chair.
However, infighting among board members at the small independent agency has led Washington-based nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to call the reforms evidence of “hypocrisy,” likening board member Richard Engler’s appointment as CSB interim chief to a “coup d’état.”
Engler was delegated the board’s administrative and executive authorities in a board vote June 11, filling a void left since former chair Rafael Moure-Eraso resigned in March amid accusations of mismanagement.
PEER alleges the vote was not valid and accused Engler of acting without a quorum. According to federal regulations, CSB must have a quorum of at least three members for the “transaction of business.”
When questioned about the process of the vote, Engler told Safety+Health that the board has authority to appoint an interim executive at times when the chair is vacant, and the office of legal counsel found that quorum requirements were met.
At the time of the delegation vote, the five-member board had only three members: Engler, Mark Griffon (whose term ended June 24) and Manuel Ehrlich. Ehrlich voted to “calendar” – or delay – the vote, but was outvoted by Engler and Griffon.
At press time, the board consisted of Engler and Ehrlich. Two additional members had been nominated by President Barack Obama, including a new chair, but neither had yet received a confirmation vote.
PEER states that, five days after Engler’s delegation, two members of CSB’s executive staff – its general counsel and managing director – were placed on administrative leave due to an internal investigation into “possible misconduct.” The investigation stems from an Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General report that accused Moure-Eraso of creating a “toxic work environment.”
PEER claims that Engler has made that environment even worse.
“In charge for less than a week, Engler has presided over the escalation from a toxic work environment to thermonuclear war,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a press release.
Engler confirmed to S+H that the two staffers were placed on leave, but declined to comment further on “internal matters.”
About two weeks after the vote, the board approved the new transparency reforms, an effort spearheaded by Engler. The reforms had been in the works for months but stalled amid failed efforts to conduct official public meetings. On June 24, Engler and Griffon voted to push through the changes as an urgent notation item.
The reforms include:
- The CSB chairperson must schedule at least four public meetings every year in Washington.
- Calendared notation votes must be considered at a public meeting within 90 days.
- Public meetings must feature a review of current investigations and action plans.
- Other board members (along with the chairperson) may add agenda items for public discussion.
Engler said the changes are best practice and will help end the custom of indefinitely calendaring issues to sweep them away. “I came here to work on chemical safety and do our part to help prevent chemical disasters,” he said, adding that the reforms were about “the future of the agency,” stabilizing CSB and ensuring the public is heard.
When asked if allowing stakeholders more opportunities to question and interact with the agency would jeopardize CSB’s independent status, Engler said “no,” adding that stakeholder input is necessary in order to have all relevant information to ensure the best investigations. Further, Engler said, the reforms will open lines of communication to community members, employers and unions, and differences of opinion should be encouraged.
“I think we should be open to that pressure, to that accountability,” Engler said. “We’ve been far too insulated of a place over the last five years.”