Chemical Safety Board Chair Needs Broader Authority, IG Says

The Chemical Safety Board investigated fires at the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas. The Chemical Safety Board investigated fires at the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas. Chemical Safety Board

The 40-staffer independent Chemical Safety Board, whose leader announced her plans to resign this month, suffers from a lack of authority for the chairman over other appointees of its five-member board, a watchdog found.

“The position of CSB chairperson lacks authority to hold board members accountable,” wrote Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. in a short report released on June 4. “Historically, the CSB has been plagued with leadership issues such as tension among board members [and] disputes over the chairperson’s authorities.” (The agency’s previous chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, was fired in 2015 after clashing with congressional overseers.)

Recruitment and maintaining employee morale have also been made difficult by President Trump’s two-time proposal to eliminate the agency—which investigates industrial accidents and makes recommendations for safety solutions.

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Add to its new troubles as it awaits a new chair increased attention from congressional overseers. On May 29, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was joined by subcommittee chairman Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., in a letter to outgoing chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland demanding documents relating to the agency’s successful efforts last year to improve scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

“In light of the committee's prior investigation of the problematic work environment at the CSB and to promote a productive federal workforce, the committee seeks to learn more about the CSB’s efforts to improve employee satisfaction,” the lawmakers wrote.

Inside the agency, staffers last month voted to unionize. And a group of employees recently complained to Government Executive that Sutherland, a day after announcing her resignation two years short of her full term, announced a new Senior Executive Service general counsel to start on June 3, 2018. “It is our understanding that [the Office of Personnel Management] suspends the SES appointing authority of an outgoing agency head when he/she has announced his/her departure,” the employees wrote.

An OPM spokesperson told Government Executive last month that OPM “has not received a selection for the position in question.” The CSB on Thursday confirmed that the position remains vacant, though Kara Wenzel serves as acting general counsel.

The IG report also linked morale problems to the leak of the agency’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal to the press, a move possibly made by a board member.

The chairperson “does not have the statutory authority to take corrective action against other board members for inappropriate behaviors,” the IG said. The report does note progress in the agency’s human capital management since it last reported and since the troubles surfaced in 2015.

The chairwoman told investigators the agency has “been unsuccessful in recent months in filling several positions. The potential candidates cited the possible elimination of the agency as a risk factor,” the report said. “Further, recent retirements of senior investigators are being factored into the Human Capital Plan” for fiscal 2019.

Staff told auditors the agency planned to add rules enforcement mechanisms to internal policies. But “because the CSB structure was established by law and its board members and chairperson are presidential appointees, the authority to address these issues and make changes lies with Congress,” the IG said, recommending that the agency go to Congress to request changes.

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