The Chemical Safety Board is a small agency with big problems.
The board has an important job: It's charged with independently investigating major chemical accidents and making recommendations to industry, regulators and labor groups. For the most part, CSB doesn't appear in headlines or get much public attention unless it issues the results of a blockbuster investigation, like its ongoing assessment of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.
But things changed yesterday.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a scathing report on the chemical board that pointed to widespread management problems. Then lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spent several hours at a hearing berating CSB's chief for allegedly stonewalling outside investigations and creating a "toxic" work environment that prompted experienced employees to leave and further stall important probes (Greenwire, June 19).
The man at the center of lawmakers' fury is Rafael Moure-Eraso, the CSB chairman appointed by President Obama in 2010. Current and former employees and board members have pointed to Moure-Eraso's leadership as the cause of many of the management problems at the agency, which has 40 employees and works out of an office on K Street in downtown Washington, D.C. According to the House investigation, he created an "abusive, toxic and hostile" work environment at the agency that previously had a collegial atmosphere.
Moure-Eraso, 68, was a longtime academic before Obama picked him for the job. He was a member of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, for 22 years, including five years as chairman of the Department of Work Environment. He was also a Labor Department adviser on preventing chemical exposures from 1994 until 1995, and he spent 15 years as an industrial hygienist engineer with two international unions.
He left Colombia more than 47 years ago and told lawmakers yesterday that he considers his work at CSB an opportunity "to give back to this country."
But lawmakers are now questioning his fitness for the job. House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told Moure-Eraso plainly yesterday: "I really believe it's time you go."
The White House didn't respond to a request for comment about whether President Obama still has confidence in the chairman.
Moure-Eraso would not say yesterday whether he intended to resign in light of the fierce criticism from lawmakers. But a statement issued later suggested he doesn't intend to step down. He said he was "disappointed" to hear criticisms of CSB management during his tenure, adding, "I plan to take these to heart and I want to assure all concerned I plan to work even harder in my last remaining year as chairperson to resolve management issues," brought to his attention by lawmakers.
Staff exodus, alleged reprisals
Moure-Eraso has been accused of ignoring the agency's investigators and insulating himself by communicating only with two of his top staffers: General Counsel Richard Loeb and Managing Director Daniel Horowitz.
Several former CSB investigators told House staffers they left the agency due to what they dubbed a toxic work environment and inappropriate questioning of investigators' credentials.
One former CSB board member said Moure-Eraso has a "dual personality in a way," according to the House report. "He can be friendly on a one-one basis if you're in an informal situation, but he can be very secretive in a business sense." The former board member said the chairman would close the door to his office and basically interact with his two closest staffers.
Moure-Eraso was also accused of improperly hiring Loeb and attempting to fire former General Counsel Christopher Warner when he advised board members about how they could prohibit Chairman Moure-Eraso from making further personnel decisions without their required approval.
Warner's position was changed to senior counselor to the chairman, where he was responsible for freedom of information and agency ethics work. The move was seen as a reprisal by several former employees, although Moure-Eraso and several other officials said it wasn't a demotion. Warner retired from CSB this year.
He wasn't the only staffer to leave recently.
Former CSB board member Beth Rosenberg stepped down in May, 17 months into her five-year term, citing frustrations with the atmosphere and Moure-Eraso's leadership. "I think the senior leadership is the problem," she told lawmakers yesterday. "The agency is broken. It needs to be rebuilt."
Rosenberg -- a former student of Moure-Eraso at the University of Massachusetts -- did defend Moure-Eraso's commitment to CSB's mission. "Dr. Moure-Eraso is completely committed to workers' safety and health, and actually everyone in the agency is," she said. The problem is "about management styles."
Internal strife appears to be widespread at the agency. A CSB spokeswoman pointed today to a story from the website Truthout for additional details about recent events at CSB. The story links to a February memo to board members Rosenberg and Mark Griffon from four CSB investigative staffers. They said they had serious concerns that board members' behavior had "done significant damage to the morale of investigative personnel and the mission of the CSB."
Among other things, the staffers said Rosenberg had told some investigators that she was working to remove Moure-Eraso and Horowitz from their positions and that she was interested in assuming his role. The memo accuses Griffon of requesting that certain reports be slowed down to avoid making Moure-Eraso look good. And the document calls for board members to "cease and desist from the extreme negative trashing of the agency to the public and stakeholders that places political posturing above the safety mission of the agency."
Rosenberg's departure left the five-member board with just two remaining members: Moure-Eraso and Griffon -- who was also a former student of Moure-Eraso. Obama nominated Richard Engler, founder and director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, for the board in 2012. Obama also picked Manny Ehrlich, principal at ESP Consulting, earlier this year for the board. Both are awaiting Senate confirmation.
Lower-level staffers have also departed.
Since Moure-Eraso took over the chairmanship, at least nine investigators and employees resigned or requested to be transferred from the Washington, D.C., office, according to the House report.
Former staffers said those and other employee departures stalled some high-profile probes, including the investigation into a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, Wash., that killed seven workers. The report was issued about four years after the incident.
Backlog, budget woes
Former CSB employees have said productivity has dropped significantly during Moure-Eraso's tenure as the backlog of investigations has piled up.
CSB is "just no longer producing timely investigations," former CSB investigator John Vorderbrueggen told House staffers. "It used to be that having an investigation open for two years was unacceptable."
U.S. EPA's inspector general -- charged with overseeing the chemical board -- reported last year that CSB had steadily fallen behind in accomplishing its objectives of releasing timely reports. In 2012, the board completed just two of the eight investigations it planned to finalize. The OIG also found that CSB had a backlog of six investigations that had been open for more than three years, including three involving fatalities (E&ENews PM, Aug. 1, 2013).
That's been a serious problem for groups that rely on those reports.
"The function of the Chemical Safety Board is very, very important," said Scott Berger, executive director of the Center for Chemical Process Safety, a nonprofit whose members include oil, gas and chemical companies. "Everybody who is involved in the industry ... they value the lessons learned that come out of the incident reports."
Anna Fendley, a legislative representative at United Steelworkers, said, "The reports aren't getting done in a timely manner, which makes them almost irrelevant." When a report comes out nearly four years after an incident, "everyone has moved on," she added. "It makes it a real challenge to put those recommendations in place."
CSB has acknowledged the backlog, pointing to budget constraints as a key hurdle.
The agency requested a budget of $12.3 million for fiscal 2015, a significant boost over the $11 million it received this year.
"In recent years, serious resource constraints have created a backlog of open major accident investigations and prevented the CSB from investigating more than a small percentage of the most serious incidents each year," CSB wrote in its most recent budget request. The agency said the "burden of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon investigation" and a backlog of older cases have further strained the agency's ability to initiate investigations.
Asked yesterday what was wrong at the CSB, Moure-Eraso pointed to the tight budget.
"I think that the principal problem with the Chemical Safety Board is that we are a very small agency that are given an incredible amount of work to do," he said. He added that he's working to use recommendations issued by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to improve the situation at the board.
"I do recognize that our operation is not perfect and that we are having some problems of management in the agency," Moure-Eraso said.
But he defended the agency's work, despite its limitations. "I believe when my tenure is over," he said, "even critics will agree the investigative body of work is solid and impressive. I am proud of our work at the CSB."
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