The Chemical Safety Board helped investigate the April 2013 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

The Chemical Safety Board helped investigate the April 2013 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Tony Gutierrez/AP file photo

Senate Panel Clears Two for Troubled Chemical Safety Board

Push to fill vacancies comes as key staffers' administrative leave is extended.

A Senate panel on Wednesday approved two nominees, including a chairman, for the troubled Chemical Safety Board, whose five-member complement has been operating with just two.

The Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved Vanessa Sutherland, President Obama’s nomination as chairman, and board member designee Kristen Kulinowski.

"Both Chemical Safety Board nominees will hopefully improve the dynamics and accountability of the embattled CSB and get the board back on its mission of objectively investigating accidents instead of pursuing issue advocacy,” said committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

Sutherland, who was nominated in March, is currently chief counsel at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Kulinowski, nominated in January, is a Rice University chemist and research staff member for the Institute for Defense Analyses-Science and Technology Policy Institute. 

Tensions, meanwhile, continue at the two-member board, which held a July 22 public business meeting and heard presentations but approved no recommendations. Two of its key staffers, General Counsel Richard Loeb and Managing Director Daniel Horowitz, learned this week that their administrative leave has been extended, according to documents obtained by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and confirmed by Government Executive. Both are under investigation for possible misconduct in the events leading up to the firing of previous CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.

“These civil servants are caught in the middle of a petty power struggle that has no connection to the efficiency of government or the faithful execution of official duties,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the board has approved no recommendations for improving chemical safety since April. He also criticized interim Chairman Rick Engler for spending $40,000 on a public relations firm. 

Asked to comment, a CSB spokeswoman said the board doesn’t comment on personnel matters. On the public relations firm, the statement said, “The CSB awarded additional funding to a multi-year contract for media support.  It is primarily used for the CSB's award-winning educational safety video program. The contractor has served the agency for over 10 years. The award was voted on and approved unanimously by the full board.”