With two weeks on the job, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, the new chair of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), on Sept. 2 announced an organizational review that she says will lead to an “agency wide improvement plan” in three months.
The board’s top slot had been vacant since March, when former chair Rafael Moure-Eraso resigned at the urging of President Barack Obama. His departure followed a lengthy Republican-led congressional investigation of mismanagement charges at the small agency that investigates chemical-related industrial accidents.
At her first public briefing last week, Sutherland underscored the need for organizational efficiency, a long-running problem for CSB.
“With a 40-person staff and a roughly $11 million budget coupled with the number of chemical accidents that I have seen come through my in-box, it really is important for me to understand operationally how we are best positioned to execute our mission to investigate accidents, share what we find, and really be a voice domestically and internationally on chemical safety.”
Her role during the next 90 days, she said, is to “listen closely, try not to talk too much, and to distill what I learn into my first set of priorities.”
In the next month, the board will hold a public hearing in Houston to release its report on the November 2014 accident at a DuPont facility in La Porte, Texas, which killed four workers. Also, the board will vote for a second time on whether to accept a report about a 2009 accident at the Caribbean Petroleum Corp. in Puerto Rico. In July, the only two members on the board at that time split their votes on the report, so final action was put off until new board members were in place.
Sutherland is the past chief counsel for the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a regulatory authority that is 10 times CSB’s size. Sutherland has worked as a corporate attorney for Altria, the parent company of tobacco-related businesses.
When quizzed about her lack of chemical industry experience, she stressed her management skills and legal experience, which Sutherland said will come in handy at the board. Sutherland pointed out that she holds an M.B.A. and has a technical background.