Damage from the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, in 2013. The Chemical Safety Board helped investigate that explosion.

Damage from the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, in 2013. The Chemical Safety Board helped investigate that explosion. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

Chemical Safety Board Accused of Holding Secret Off-Site Meetings

Whistleblower complains to watchdog about deliberations, but agency denies wrongdoing.

The chairman and members of the Chemical Safety Board have been conducting “off-site” meetings with limited staff, union members and consultants that might violate sunshine rules against deliberating in secret, according to a complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general’s hotline.

Members of the five-member board (there is one vacancy) charged with investigating industrial accidents “constructively deliberate at these meetings and then cover up their deliberations claiming that the meetings are simply ‘off-site’ events or ‘quorum’ meetings,” said the anonymous employee who filed the complaint obtained by Government Executive.

“CSB members are essentially managing the agency on two tracks,” the complaint reads: “Holding nominal public meetings that are announced in the Federal Register; and holding private deliberative meetings among themselves and/or with interested parties, particularly labor union representatives, in an attempt to resolve issues that they wish not be made public.”

The complaint cites meetings as recently as Jan. 4 and Dec. 11, 2017. The January meeting was reportedly to discuss a case involving the 2014 DuPont LaPorte chemical release. Some members of the International Chemical Workers, the complaint said, are being permitted to influence the content of upcoming reports without public transparency.

The presidentially appointed board, said to be working with the consulting firm Careerstone Group, and the agency’s general counsel, the compliant said, “try to portray these meetings as team-building exercises or something other than as board meetings requiring public notice, but they are either actual or constructive deliberative meetings.” The aspiring whistleblower argued that board members at these meetings discuss “issues of agency governance and specific investigative matters that are only appropriate for duly called meetings of the board.”

Asked for comment, CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen told Government Executive, “The CSB [members] have not been notified of such an IG inquiry; and, if and when notified, we intend to fully cooperate with the IG as we have on all other investigations. All quorum meetings by CSB board members are attended by counsel, include additional staff and do not involve formal deliberations.”

Though receipt of the complaint was acknowledged by the EPA IG’s office, an IG spokeswoman said by email, “The EPA OIG does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation (i.e., process by which law enforcement personnel look for potential criminal activity and/or administrative misconduct). Our office does publicly announce the start of an audit or program evaluation. To date, we have not announced one on this topic.”