Is the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) in threat of being shut down? Some congressional members think it's possible.
At a recent appropriation hearing, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., delivered a simple message to CSB: Put your differences behind you and finish more investigations. "If this doesn't happen," warned Bond at the April 12 hearing, "I will advocate disbanding this agency."
What Bond says matters because he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds CSB. Board members implemented a new management structure in January, forcing Paul Hill to resign as chairman, though he remains a board member. Hill said he doesn't expect a new chairman to be appointed until after the presidential election.
Bond and other members of the subcommittee said they are not impressed with results so far. It appears to many observers that political infighting and staff turnover that has crippled the agency's ability to investigate has grown worse under the board's new structure.
Three of the CSB's 24 staff members have left the agency since January, and a fourth has announced his intention to resign. "I can tell you most everybody else is looking," Hill said in an interview.
In response to the tongue-lashing they received on Capitol Hill, Hill fired off an April 19 e-mail to fellow board members calling on them to end their "dysfunctional, unethical and destructive" approach to management.
Hill said Congress is taking allegations seriously that there was a conspiracy to slow down investigations when he was chair to discredit his leadership. He also claimed that "staff are hemorrhaging from the agency" because those seen as loyal to him are being targeted with a hostile work environment, intimidation and a denial of basic rights.
To improve its productivity, CSB seeks to hire 10 investigators. Hill said it will be hard for the agency to recruit anyone as various harassment allegations are revealed.
The first three personnel actions taken by the board after Hill's resignation as chairman, he said, were against women in senior positions. All three have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
According to news reports, one of the women, former investigator Valerie Barnes, submitted testimony to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, charged with funding CSB, that investigators were being pressured to alter findings that conflict with the priorities of the politically appointed board majority and its staff allies.
Whether due to intimidation, as Hill alleges, or another reason, Barnes has withdrawn her explosive testimony and declines to answer further questions on her connection with CSB, under threat of private litigation from senior officials she has criticized at the agency. Armando Santiago, another CSB investigator who has announced his intention to resign, also declined to answer questions concerning his work or Barnes' allegations.
Although Hill called on his colleagues to discuss these problems with him, their response was to make his e-mail public and release a statement laced with accusations of their own.
The April 19 memo from Dr. Hill is "only the latest in a series of destructive actions by him," charged the three other board members, who listed a number of examples of his alleged mismanagement of the board.
Slow Investigation Progress
CSB has completed three investigations in its two years of existence. To make matters worse, its last report was delivered in June 1999, and no new investigations have been accepted since March 1999.
Some stakeholders, who initially held back from criticism, are beginning to lose patience. Richard Miller, a policy analyst with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, said many members of his union are unhappy the board is not investigating the March 27 explosion at the Phillips Petroleum Co. plant in Pasadena, Texas. The recent blast killed a worker and injured many others, and the troubled facility has had three other accidents within the last year.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association "still believes in the CSB's mission," according to spokesperson Jeff Van. "We were involved in the creation of the CSB, and that is why we are so concerned about recent developments."
Andrea Taylor, a board member who was named spokesperson for the agency, promised that three investigations Tosco, Morton and Sonat One will be completed and two new ones accepted by September. Five other investigations are under review.
Taylor admitted that board infighting has contributed to the delay in producing reports, but charged that Hill's mismanagement was a bigger factor. "We took on more investigation than we could handle. The infrastructure was not completely developed," she said.
An April 20 statement from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., until now one of CSB's biggest champions on Capitol Hill, perhaps best captures the agency's loss of prestige. "They seem to be on the right track," Lautenberg said. "If not, their future is uncertain."