New Transparency Is Opaque at Chemical Safety Board
Basic Information on Investigations, Procurement and Private Emails Still Missing
Washington, DC — Despite proclaiming a new transparency, the federal chemical safety agency’s actions and even its governing rules remain largely hidden from public view, according to two federal lawsuits being pursued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One major aspect of the litigation revolves around the failure of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) to disclose the criteria it uses for selecting which chemical accidents it will investigate.
Beginning in February 2014, PEER has filed a series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the CSB on a variety of topics. The agency’s refusal to produce requested documents ultimately led to PEER filing two lawsuits in U.S. District Court, the first on June 29, 2015, and the other on September 15th. The suits spring from five still unanswered FOIA requests concerning:
- Six Board Orders, the formal adopted procedures, spelling out, among other things, how chemical accidents are screened to determine which ones to which the CSB will deploy investigators, as well as the protocols for how the investigations are to be conducted;
- Procurements and other expenditures ordered by CSB outside of public sessions. Included in these requests are the retainer agreements and expenses incurred in the ongoing internal investigation of the CSB executive staff who has been on paid administrative leave since mid-June while private firms conduct an open-ended exploration of “possible misconduct;” and
- Records of private email use by presidentially-appointed Board members to communicate with Congress, industry and union lobbyists concerning the CSB investigation of the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California and other matters, culminating in the defeat of a proposal to reform oil refinery safety regulation. The suit also seeks private emails of a Board member who later took actions to place senior staff on leave over the same practice in which he routinely engaged.
“How can a public agency keep its governing procedures, such as formally adopted Board Orders, a secret?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the materials also show widespread use of private emails to conduct CSB business by Board members and staff at all levels. “In recent meetings, Board appointees have patted themselves on the back for their openness but this agency’s operations are about as transparent as a brick wall.”
One recent controversy has been the failure of CSB to open an investigation into a single chemical or industrial accident in more than 7 months, including last week’s flash fire in a chemistry class at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, that seriously burned two students and injured others. These more than 20 major accidents resulted in nearly as many fatalities and even more serious injuries. CSB officials have not explained on what basis it decided not to deploy.
In the Woodson accident, CSB told reporters that it is still “screening” the accident yet screening is a preliminary step normally on the day of an accident, when little is known and a prompt decision needs to be made whether to send a team before the site and evidence are altered. It makes little sense to be screening this accident which happened days ago, especially when CSB investigators could easily drive or even Metro over and take a look.
“It should not take a federal lawsuit to find out how Chemical Safety Board decides which accidents to investigate,” added Ruch. “This basic information we seek enables the public to gauge how well this agency is fulfilling or falling short of its mission.”