Chemical Safety Board scrambles after emails surface

By Colby Bermel | 09/27/2016 01:23 PM EDT

Members of the nation’s chemical safety watchdog exchanged tense emails last week after reports surfaced of potential improper conduct by one of its board members.

And in an effort to rehabilitate its image, the Chemical Safety Board is scheduling an offsite meeting next month for its top officials to discuss reforms to the troubled agency.

The actions came after Greenwire reported that member Rick Engler may have engaged in improper correspondence with officials at the largest industrial labor union in the country, according to private emails (Greenwire, Sept. 21).

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"Today has again highlighted that we have some very fundamental behavioral and philosophical items to discuss if we have any hope of successfully executing the new strategic plan and improving the agency’s image over the next 4 years," CSB Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland wrote in an email obtained by Greenwire to her three fellow board members just after midnight last Thursday.

"Board member actions, not staff actions, continue to plague the CSB year over year, and I am going to implore us to break this cycle," she said.

Sutherland also wrote about the agency’s internal political woes and criticized Engler’s apparent lack of transparency.

"I could rage about how frustrating it is to have the exact same conversations about teamwork, openness, transparency, communication, respect for the staff and each other, cohesiveness and respect for swim lanes," Sutherland wrote.

She then outlined a four-point agenda to be discussed at the planned offsite meeting for agency members, the first two being how to reform stakeholder and public engagement.

The third point reflects the fact that CSB members are individually — not collectively — appointed by the president.

Although members go through their own Senate confirmation process, they are "also part of a TEAM," Sutherland wrote.

"We have different views that should be heard and used, but we must learn how to avoid being 4 independent agencies with 4 individual missions," she continued.

The fourth point, in Sutherland’s words, is "revisions to the investigation report review process that I hypothesize will make us and the team happier."

‘Consider asserting’ public confidence

"I am very disappointed in your email," Engler wrote in a reply to Sutherland the morning after.

"At a time when my hope would be that there would be at least some rallying to support the role of the agency against those who do not believe in its mission and those individuals who may be intent on destroying it, instead, your focus is to criticize me," he continued.

Engler proceeded to respond point by point to Sutherland’s email, but ended his reply with a plea to her.

"[P]ublicly," he wrote, "I ask you to consider asserting that you have the utmost confidence in the integrity of all board members."

In an interview today, Sutherland said she does have confidence in the board’s members and work.

"In any organization, at the end of the day, when issues — whatever those issues are — arise, [when] you’re one of the people who is a leader at that organization, you try to resolve it," she said. "You have confidence in people as you try to resolve an issue.

"Who knows where things end up," she added. "The only thing you can do is try."

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