A Chemical Safety Board ‘Game of Thrones’ Power Struggle

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is struggling to move forward after the departure of embattled former chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso. Competing visions for the board, its membership, and its scope of work may make this difficult to do.

In 2014, chairman Moure-Eraso faced calls to resign amid reports that he had created a toxic work environment that did not support inspectors and led to retaliations against whistleblowers. A staff report from two U.S. House of Representatives committees corroborated these claims, finding that: “the abusive and hostile work environment created by Chairman Moure-Eraso has instilled fear throughout the agency” and “left the agency in disarray.” It also found that Moure-Eraso had “mismanaged investigations to the detriment of public safety.” The report noted that in his first four years as chairman, nearly 25% of the CSB’s staff had resigned.

Moure-Eraso was originally nominated to the CSB by President Obama in March of 2010, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June of that year. Following these strong calls for him to resign, Moure-Eraso stepped down in March of 2015.

However, even with Moure-Eraso out of the picture, it is increasingly clear that the CSB is still evolving.

In June, board member Rick Engler claimed that an internal vote had empowered him as the “Board Member Delegated Interim Executive and Administrative Authority” until the senate confirmation of Vanessa Sutherland, whom President Obama had nominated as Moure-Eraso’s permanent replacement.

However, details later emerged that this vote had occurred despite efforts by board member Manny Erlich to prevent or postpone it — and that the vote had also broken several procedural rules by 1.) occurring without all members present, 2.) occurring over email, and 3.) announcing the results without waiting the required five days for review by the general counsel’s office. During this vote, the board also agreed to remove the six month term limit normally required for CSB interim chairs, effectively making Engler chair until the board unanimously decided otherwise.

One of Engler’s first acts after the vote was to place most of the CSB’s executive staff on administrative leave for 45 days. Then, in late July, he announced that this leave was extended until mid-September. Engler stated that the reason for this leave was an internal investigation into possible staff involvement in the same negative conduct that led to Moure-Eraso’s resignation.

Rather than an administrative moved designed to streamline the CSB during a period of transition, some saw this move as politically-motivated and having potentially far-reaching impacts regarding the agency’s power and effectiveness.

The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) charged that “Republican members of Congress are pushing an open-ended probe as part of an effort to paralyze the CSB.” They further speculated that a bargain had apparently been struck between Engler (a liberal) and conservative lawmakers. Under this bargain, Engler would retain power over the CSB in exchange for certain changes at the agency, including the removal of certain members.

However, earlier this month, the U.S. Senate confirmed two new CSB members — Vanessa Sutherland, the new chair, and Kristen M. Kulinowski. Both are scheduled to serve five-year terms. Sutherland was sworn in as chair on August 11, and Engler released a press statement congratulating her on her new role.

One spot on the board still remains unfilled, with no prospective member currently nominated to fill it.

Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, EHS professionals should continue to keep an eye on changes at the CSB. Even small changes at the top can have the power to impact future recommendations and regulations aimed at businesses across the country.

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