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March 10 — Even as the head of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board faces a bipartisan call for his ouster, former board members have made a more radical recommendation—eliminate the agency as an independent, stand-alone entity and fold it into the National Transportation Safety Board.
In written testimony submitted March 4 to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Bush-era CSB appointees William Wright and William Wark called for the change, alleging that irreparable harm has been inflicted on the board by Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and his top lieutenants.
Moure-Eraso and his leadership team have “diminished [the CSB’s] reputation and role because of multiple violations of trust and creation of a caustic climate,” Wright said in the testimony.
Wark testified that the “perfidious back-channel dealings” of Moure-Eraso, Managing Director Daniel Horowitz and General Counsel Richard Loeb have “ruined the agency and destroyed morale.”
The former members submitted the testimony as part of the committee's examination of the CSB's management problems.
Former CSB member Beth Rosenberg, an Obama administration appointee who resigned less than a third of the way through her five-year term, recommended that the Government Accountability Office examine the feasibility and impact of moving the CSB to the NTSB.
“The governance issues that plague the agency now have occurred before, which implies a structural flaw that may be best ameliorated by changing the structure,” Rosenberg said in her written testimony.
Former CSB Chairman John Bresland and former board member Gerald Poje submitted written testimony that didn't call for joining the two agencies. The mission of the CSB is to investigate industrial chemical accidents, while the NTSB investigates transportation accidents.
Affected parties began airing concerns about the CSB’s lack of productivity and management problems in 2013, and criticism of the agency and its leadership intensified over the next two years. Democrats and Republicans alike excoriated Moure-Eraso at the March 4 hearing of the House Oversight Committee, with several demanding his immediate resignation.
Congress created the CSB with passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, although the agency did not begin operating until 1998. Like the NTSB, the CSB is an independent investigative agency with no enforcement authority. The CSB is roughly one-tenth the size of the NTSB, both in terms of budget and number of employees.
The NTSB’s focus is on the public safety implications of transportation incidents. In addition to investigating aviation accidents, the agency has a division that investigates incidents involving railroads, pipelines and transportation of hazardous materials. However, it doesn’t presently have expertise in major chemical releases at fixed facilities.
It would be up to Congress to allow NTSB absorption of the CSB. A bill to modify relevant sections of the Clean Air Act and the Independent Safety Board Act could pave the way for the CSB to be subsumed.
Spokesmen for the CSB and the NTSB declined to comment on the proposal.
A review of the statutes that established the two safety agencies shows a handful of apparent structural differences.
Each agency is led by five board members. But whereas no more than three of the five NTSB members can be from the same political party, the CSB has no such restriction.
The NTSB charter seems to include several features to boost transparency that the CSB lacks. For example, the NTSB’s annual reporting requirements include a section requiring the agency to identify which investigations are languishing and to explain why. The NTSB charter also authorizes the head of the GAO to evaluate its management and audit its programs and expenditures.
While a few former board members have advocated eliminating the CSB and folding it into the NTSB, the idea has yet to catch on with some other interested parties.
“The CSB as an independent agency has done well in the past,” said Shakeel Kadri, executive director of the Center for Chemical Process Safety at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. “I frankly don’t see any reason to dismantle the agency.”
Kadri told Bloomberg BNA March 9 that his group is meeting with the CSB in the near future to rekindle its regular collaboration with the agency. Until about three years ago, the CSB gave biannual briefings to the top process safety officials who sit on the group’s technical steering committee, Kadri said. The CSB stopped that practice due to concerns about conflicts of interest, as the process safety group was working on one of the agency’s recommendations, Kadri said.
Moreover, Kadri said he hopes the next CSB chairperson will help restore the agency’s relationship with the process safety group. The White House announced March 3 its nomination of Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chief counsel at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to head the CSB after Moure-Eraso's five-year term ends in June.
Although the suggestion by two prominent former members to fold the CSB into the NTSB gives weight to the recommendation, it’s premature to advocate for that change, said Bill Allmond, vice president of government relations for the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates.
However, Allmond said there would be no harm in asking the GAO to study the proposal.
“The NTSB is so much more recognized and respected by stakeholders than the CSB, especially at this point,” Allmond told Bloomberg BNA March 9. “Having the CSB as part of the NTSB would give any future reports immediate credibility.”
Yet it’s unclear whether the NTSB has the particular knowledge necessary to investigate chemical incidents at fixed facilities, Allmond said. It could also be confusing for facility operators or communities to have the NTSB, which is well-known for its role investigating transportation incidents, to be heading probes of chemical incidents, Allmond said.
Moreover, the nomination of Sutherland to take over for Moure-Eraso suggests the White House has plans to restore the agency's ability to carry out its mission under its current structure, Allmond said.
Jim Frederick, assistant director for safety and health for the United Steelworkers, told Bloomberg BNA March 6 that the union hadn’t weighed the implications of moving the CSB under the NTSB.
The union counts on the CSB’s work, since many of the incidents it investigates have happened at refineries and other workplaces staffed by its members, Frederick said. In addition, the United Steelworkers played a prominent role in creation of the agency in 1990, he said.
“Just the fact that, 25 years later, there’s a discussion about eliminating the CSB as an independent agency is a sad state of affairs,” Frederick said.
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