Shakeup Coming to the Chemical Safety Board Following Agency Drama

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is poised to enter a period of transition not seen in many years.

Rafael Moure-Eraso has been Chair of the CSB since 2010. However, there is a strong possibility— amidst growing dissent — that he could be replaced before his term expires on June 24.

Many industry observers first became aware of growing dissatisfaction within the organization earlier this year, when the CSB announced that it was canceling three ongoing investigations into hazardous chemical accidents. Moure-Eraso supported continuing the investigations, but the CBS board nonetheless voted to terminate them. Dissenting board member Manuel Erlich said that “there is no realistic opportunity to issue a CSB report” for the three investigations in question, and that “it would be fruitless to put more researchers into the case.”

The canceled investigations included:

  • The 2009 Silver Eagle Refinery flash fire and explosion and catastrophic pipe explosion in Woods Cross, Utah in which four workers suffered serious burns and nearby buildings and homes were damaged when a flammable vapor cloud was released from a storage tank.
  • The 2009 CITGO Refinery hydrofluoric acid release and fire in Corpus Christi, Texas which resulted in one worker suffering critical burns.
  • The 2010 Horsehead Holding Company explosion and fire in Monaca, Pennsylvania which killed two workers.

This dissent, voiced at a public meeting, seemed to open the floodgates for public criticism of CSB management.

Earlier this month, at a meeting of the U.S. Congress House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, representatives from both side of the aisle voiced concern about the state of the CSB, and called for Moure-Eraso to resign before the end of his term.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said that: “[The CSB] suffered from a checkered history with regard to leadership” and noted that the committee had previously been required to hold hearings about “whistleblower reprisals and mismanagement at the Chemical Safety Board.”  He also said that an investigation by the EPA inspector general “found violations of the Federal Records Act by senior Chemical Safety Board officials” and that Moure-Eraso and other top officials “knowingly violated the Federal Records Act” through their misuse of private email accounts.

Committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) noted that 80% of CSB employees now claim they feel very frustrated with top leadership, and called this figure “astounding” and “stunning.”  He said that he was “deeply troubled” by the current situation, and said he believed that “the CSB has gone off the rails.”

The Obama administration seems to know which way the wind is blowing. The day before the committee meeting, the White House issued a press release announcing the nomination of Vanessa Allen Sutherland to lead the CSB. However, the release did not include a call for Moure-Eraso to leave before the end of his term. Sutherland has served as chief counsel for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for the past three years. Prior to that, she held positions at Altria Client Services and MCI WorldCom.

There is room to conjecture as to what changes Sutherland might bring to the CSB. Part of her current responsibilities at the PHMSA include: “Recommending or completing enforcement actions for violations of pipeline safety or hazardous materials transportation safety laws and regulations.”

It is also unknown what the implications might be of Moure-Eraso remaining in office for the full remainder of his term, which, according to his statements before congress, he seems intent on doing.

At the recent House committee hearing, he strongly defended his work at the CSB, and claimed “As my time as chairman comes to a close, we will be leaving behind a stronger agency.”

It was clear that most members of congress in attendance disagreed with this assessment.