Leadership at Chemical Safety Board questioned amid investigation backlog

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New, damning evidence of management failures within the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was presented Thursday at a congressional hearing.

The board is responsible for investigating accidents such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But its effectiveness has languished since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found last year. While its accident investigations are supposed to be completed within a timely manner, there remains a significant backlog, drawing the ire of victims’ families as well as members of Congress.   

The board's investigation into the 2010 Tesoro Corp. refinery fire in Anacortes, Wash., that killed seven workers was completed just last month, more than four years after the accident. Its Deepwater Horizon report, released June 5, also was four years in the making.

Testimony Thursday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform blamed the backlog on poor leadership by Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, appointed by President Obama in 2010.

Former board member Beth Rosenberg resigned from her position last month, a little over a year into her five-year term. She cited the agency's "level of dysfunction," including what she described a widespread fear of disagreeing with management, creating a high amount of attrition.

“Those whose opinions differed from those of senior leadership or the chair are marginalized and vilified,” Rosenberg testified. “Disagreement is seen as disloyalty.”

At least nine experienced employees have departed the agency since 2011, which has only made the backlog of cases more burdensome.

Rosenberg also said there is no clear plan to tackle the number of cases that remains. "The action plan consists of a list of unfinished investigations, but they are not prioritized, nor is there any discussion of the priorities," she said.

In his testimony and under questioning, Moure-Eraso attributed the slew of unfinished reports to a lack of resources.

“We are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle,” he said.

The board's reports are of the highest quality and have contributed to several new safety regulations, Moure-Eraso said.

A report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general last year, however, found that the backlog of cases has undermined the board's ability to fulfill its mission.

After this report was released, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. opened a new investigation into the CSB after discovering that a number of messages were sent between the personal e-mail accounts of Moure-Eraso and board Managing Director Daniel Horowitz to conduct official business. These emails may  implicate CSB leadership in the improper firing of agency employees or retaliation against those who have spoken out against the culture of the agency, Elkins said under questioning.

Despite repeated requests, Moure-Eraso has refused to release the requested documents, citing attorney-client privilege. Thursday's hearing was called as a result of Elkins's issuing a “seven-day letter,” a tool reserved for urgent matters when there is non-compliance with an inspector general's investigation.

Elkins said throughout the hearing that the chairman had "stonewalled the investigation," which hasn't progressed in nearly a year due to the missing documents.

Many members of the committee had choice words for the chairman. While Moure-Eraso fiddled with his pencil and looked down at his papers, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said, “All the fingers are pointing at you, here.”

In an interview after the hearing, Rosenberg told the Center for Public Integrity that while Moure-Eraso appears to have good intentions, his tenure  has suffered as a result of poor judgment and bad advice from within the CSB.

“The next steps are that leadership needs to be changed,” she said.

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