Chemical board under fire amid investigation backlog

A key federal agency that is investigating the January’s Elk River chemical spill is in turmoil.

Top leadership at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are being harshly criticized by a board member, a former board member and several former agency staffers. Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have seized on the issue, issuing a blistering staff report and holding a hearing last week on the controversy.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are not proposing significant new funding or resources for the CSB, a small agency that continues to struggle with a limited budget and with the huge job of trying to pinpoint causes of major industrial accidents and recommend reforms that could help eliminate such incidents.

“The CSB faces certain challenges in fulfilling its mission that are beyond its control,” former CSB member Beth Rosenberg told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “With current staffing and resources, it cannot possibly investigate all the incidents and deaths that it should.”

In late May, Rosenberg resigned her board post, saying she felt she could do more for worker safety outside the agency that inside it. Rosenberg told lawmakers there is a “chilled atmosphere” at the board, where staffers are afraid to have open discussions and board members other than Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso are not consulted about major decisions.

Rosenberg’s resignation left the board — which is set up by law to have five members — with only Moure-Eraso and Mark Griffon as the remaining board members.

Griffon submitted a written statement to the House committee, saying that the atmosphere at the board is prompting experienced investigators to leave.

Griffon said that the board has 17 open investigations. Eight of those are more than four years old, and three are more than five years old.

“While resource limitations have impacted the agency’s ability to complete investigations in a timely manner, it is clear that management deficiencies, including an untenable turnover rate, have also contributed to the inefficiencies in completing investigations,” Griffon said.

The committee’s staff report outlined concerns about the potential outing of agency whistleblowers, major votes and decisions being made in private instead of at public meetings, and stonewalling of an Inspector General’s investigation. The report said that “it is imperative that a change in leadership take place to allow this struggling agency to regain focus on safety issues and provide necessary guidance to industry.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the House committee’s ranking Democrat, agreed that there are problems at the CSB. But Cummings also noted that the committee has not held hearings on issues such as the board’s recent report outlining regulatory failures that led to the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling disaster in April 2010.

“It is a shame that we aren’t spending the same amount of time on the substance of the board’s work,” Cummings said during the Thursday committee hearing.

During the hearing, Moure-Eraso said no CSB employees have been punished in any way for complaining about the way the agency operates. And while the board members have “spirited debates” about chemical safety issues, Moure-Eraso said board votes have all been unanimous, reflecting a successful effort to reach consensus.

“I can understand some of the criticism,” he said. “But ... we are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle.”

Moure-Eraso noted the board’s ongoing investigation of the Freedom Industries chemical spill. He said the probe “will be critical for assuring the safety of chemical storage facilities located around the country near drinking water supplies or other critical infrastucture.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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