The controversy surrounding the leadership of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) reached a climax in March. The chair and other top figures of the CSB, which is an independent federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents and making recommendations based upon its findings, have faced withering criticism for some time (see: “Turmoil Takes a Toll on Chemical Safety Board”).
President Obama early in the month had indicated he would not reappoint chair Rafael Moure-Eraso to a second five-year term when his current term expired in June — instead nominating Vanessa Sutherland to join the CSB as chair. Since 2011, she has served as the chief counsel for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Prior to that, she held senior legal positions in the private sector.
On March 18th, a bipartisan group of 14 of the 24 members of the House of Representative’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent President Obama a letter calling for him to remove Moure-Eraso, as well as the CSB’s general counsel Richard Loeb and managing director Daniel Horowitz. Signatories included Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut), chair of the committee, and Elijah Cummings (D-Md), its top Democrat. The letter stated: “After holding several hearings, reviewing thousands of documents, and interviewing multiple current and former CSB employees, it is clear that the CSB is in a state of turmoil. It is vital that you act to immediately remove the toxic leadership that is undermining the agency’s critical safety mission.”
Citing a 2014 survey by the Office of Personnel Management, the letter noted: “CSB employees rated their satisfaction with senior leadership a 26 out of a possible 100, half of the average score for similar small agencies. In the same survey, overall employee satisfaction was dead last across the entire federal government.”
This letter stressed: “This issue is important because morale has reached the point where it affects the retention of qualified staff to carry out investigations of serious chemical accidents which in turn impacts the efficiency of the agency…
“We appreciate your decision to nominate a new Chair rather than reappointing Moure-Eraso for a second term. However, we urge you to strongly consider additionally addressing this serious issue by removing Chairman Moure-Eraso rather than waiting for his term to expire…”
On March 26th, a White House official confirmed that President Obama had asked for and received Moure-Eraso’s resignation.
Let’s hope the CSB now can turn its full attention to its crucial mission of investigating accidents.
At press-time, the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works had taken up Sutherland’s appointment but not yet confirmed her. Currently, there’re no signs of any roadblocks or extended delays facing her confirmation.
Hopefully, Sutherland’s experience in a federal safety agency will enable her to effectively lead the CSB.
However, I — and many process safety specialists, I’m sure — would have preferred to see a technologist with extensive chemical industry experience and a strong process safety background leading the agency.