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

Good, Bad and Familiar News at the Chemical Safety Board

Employee morale is up under new leadership, but ethics issues have been revived.

The small, independent Chemical Safety Board received good news last week with the release of results of the 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The poll showed that staff working under the five-member board (one seat is vacant) chaired by Vanessa Allen Sutherland raised its employee engagement score 14 points to 58 percent on the annual survey’s index for small agencies. Similarly, the CSB’s score on global satisfaction ticked up 12 points to 48 percent over 2015’s index.

“I am pleased that the CSB has shown improvements in this year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey – as chairperson, I recognize this is an ongoing effort,” Sutherland said in a statement for Government Executive. “I am dedicated to continuing to drive internal improvements while driving critical chemical safety change.”

The same week the survey came out, however, CSB was hit with an expose by E&E Publishing’s Greenwire titled, “Another email scandal at the Chemical Safety Board.” Reporter Colby Bermel wrote that board member Rick Engler may have engaged in improper correspondence with officials at the United Steelworkers union, raising the question of whether Engler could “act objectively in matters of interest to the union.”

Engler’s email, Greenwire wrote, may have bordered on advocacy and lobbying, in the opinion of some experts, when he wrote to petroleum safety management officials in California and said, "I am working with the United Steelworkers and some allied environmental organizations to encourage further public support for the California refinery safety reforms, which is consistent with the CSB's support for this initiative." Engler went on to organize a conference call with the safety officials.

As a result of the expose, Greenwire reported, the inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency has opened an inquiry.

Engler defended his approach. "If you interpret it that specifically," he said of the Anti-Lobbying Act, "it would essentially mean that the CSB could not fulfill its statutory purpose, which is expressed clearly in the actual amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the legislative history,” according to the story.

This is not the first time Engler’s work for unions has ruffled the CSB, on which he served as acting chair before Sutherland’s arrival. 

Sutherland told Government Executive, “As chairperson, I am fully committed to ensuring that the CSB is complying with all laws and with federal guidance on ethics or best practices. I and our legal counsel will be discussing the matter in more detail to assure that the issue is resolved.”

Before Sutherland arrived in August 2015 to replace fired chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, the board was in turmoil over congressional investigations of use of private email and other issues. One result was that General Counsel Richard Loeb and Managing Director Daniel Horowitz were placed on administrative leave.

Government Executive has since learned that Loeb has retired, but Horowitz remains on leave pending results of an investigation.

Asked for confirmation, Sutherland said the CSB does not discuss ongoing personnel matters.