House Republicans Urge White House to Stabilize Chemical Safety Board

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., is one of the Republican lawmakers who wrote a letter to the White House detailing concerns about the small investigative agency. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., is one of the Republican lawmakers who wrote a letter to the White House detailing concerns about the small investigative agency. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Two key figures on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have taken up the baton from their predecessors in casting a skeptical eye on the functionality of the independent Chemical Safety Board.

Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., joined by environment subcommittee chairman Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., sent an Aug. 7 letter to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that recaps five years of troubled management at the 40-person investigative agency.

The well-reported troubles ranged from misuse of private emails, to a “toxic atmosphere” that shattered morale, to slow hiring, to inappropriate outside contracts by a board member. The five-member board is down to three since the surprise resignation in May of Chairman Vanessa Allen Sutherland. It is currently led by Interim Executive Authority Kristen Kulinowski, alongside board members Manuel Ehrlich and Rick Engler, with two vacancies.

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The lawmakers urged Kelly to help speedily appoint a new chairman. “Given the agency’s history, the current transition could plunge the agency into further chaos, and a leadership void could embolden the current board members to engage in even more inappropriate behavior,” the lawmakers said, with a copy to their Democratic ranking members. “However, it provides crucial opportunity to reverse the CSB’s troubled course and confront the pattern of management abuses.”

The Republicans also pointed to delays—as documented by an inspector general, in hiring investigators—attributed in part to budget uncertainty caused by President Trump’s proposals to eliminate the agency.

In its human capital plan released last month, the CSB wrote that it “faces increasing challenges in attracting and retaining key talent, especially at the mid-career levels, partly as a result of increased competition for high-performing employees and more flexible compensation policies in other federal agencies.” It promised that “agency morale will be regularly assessed to determine its impact on overall staff motivation and productivity,” declaring that under the now-departed Sutherland’s leadership, the CSB became one of five most improved small/micro agencies in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Sutherland in June became vice president for law of the Norfolk Southern transportation corporation.

The CSB’s role in evaluating workplace safety regulations was evident in its release this May of a final report on its investigation of the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, which suffered dangerous damage during a fire in August 2017 during Hurricane Harvey. On Aug. 4, executives of Arkema were indicted on criminal charges for failure to anticipate dangers of flooding.

"We are grateful that congress acknowledges that the CSB needs presidentially appointed and senate confirmed board members to accomplish its mission," CSB said in a statement. "It is important to note that many of the concerns raised are historical. The agency's current leadership continues to pursue its hiring initiatives and pursue a high performing engaged work force through following its strategic, human capital and action plans." 

This story has been updated with comment from CSB

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