The chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, announced on May 21 that she will resign from the board next month. She gave no reason for her departure.
“I am saddened to leave the wonderful mission and incredible work of the CSB,” Sutherland said in a statement. “We are the only agency conducting independent, comprehensive root cause chemical incident investigations.”
With Sutherland’s departure, what should be a five-member board will have but three members. “The remaining board members will be required to vote on an interim leader,” CSB said in a statement, “unless and until the White House nominates and the Senate confirms a new chair.” A nomination is unlikely since the Trump administration has sought twice to eliminate the board.
Sutherland has led the board since August 2015. She took over during a difficult time after former chair Rafael Moure-Eraso was forced to resign by members of Congress and then-president Barack Obama over charges of mismanagement, following congressional investigations and heated oversight hearings.
Sutherland immediately froze new accident investigations and had the agency focus on addressing a backlog of six long delayed investigations, one of which dated to 2009. As she leaves, CSB faces 10 outstanding investigations. The oldest occurred in 2014.
The board appeared more stable during Sutherland’s initial tenure. Despite Trump administration attempts to eliminate it, Congress has continued its funding in large part due to efforts of the board and stakeholders, notes Donald S. Holmstrom, retired former director of CSB’s Western Regional Office.
However, many key investigators have become demoralized, Holmstrom says. Possibly to complete investigations more quickly, investigators have been recently told to limit their scope to immediate technical conditions that led to an accident. That directive means CSB won’t be uncovering broader, systemic problems, such as a company’s safety culture or long-running conditions that were ignored and only discovered during an accident investigation.
Consequently, “Highly talented investigators are leaving,” Holmstrom says. In two years, investigative staff have dropped from 20 to 10; five of those departures occurred in the last six months. Also, staff point to a recent vote to unionize as a symptom of problems, such as harassment, devaluing technical staff, and removing rigor from the investigative process in the small agency.
Moving forward after Sutherland departs, the biggest challenge for the three-member board “will be dividing up the responsibilities and being extraordinarily transparent,” says Gerald Poje, a former board member who served during a period when CSB had merely two members. “They must engender the confidence of those with the power of the purse in Congress.”
CORRECTION: This story was revised on May 23, 2018, to add additional information from Donald Holmstrom and Gerald Poje, remove incorrect information about CSB aides being terminated, and correct a misspelling of Barack Obama's name.