Less than two years after it finally opened for business, the much-ballyhooed Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is experiencing agency meltdown.
Chairman Paul Hill Jr. is in West Virginia relaying orders through his chief of staff. The other board members think he's on an indefinite leave of absence, so they sent him a get-well message, then moved to take over his responsibilities.
For months, a bitter turf war has raged over how big a role Hill has to give the board in formulating policy and running the agency. The dispute has brought the agency to a virtual standstill while it seeks a review from the Justice Department. Today, the two sides barely speak to each other.
"Hiring personnel and budget development, in my view, are administrative," Hill said in a telephone interview from his West Virginia home. "The board members are hired for their background and expertise. The dispute is about where that line is drawn."
The board was authorized under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 with a mandate to investigate chemical industry accidents "resulting in a fatality, serious injury or substantial property damage." The agency was modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane and train crashes.
Congress delayed funding for years because of disputes over the chemical board's independence and wariness over creating a new federal bureaucracy, but relented in 1997 in part because of dissatisfaction over the Clinton administration's investigation of a 1995 chemical plant explosion in Lodi, N.J.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the sharpest critic of the Lodi report, became the board's biggest champion. Yesterday, he described the board's current dilemma as "growing pains that must be worked through so it can continue its critical mission."
The board began work in 1998 with Hill as chairman and chief executive officer, and has produced accident reports on a propane tank explosion in Albert City, Iowa; an accident at an explosives factory in Mustang, Nev.; and a case of nitrogen asphyxiation in Hahnville, La.
Both Hill and his estranged colleagues agree that friction began to crest early this year when newly arrived board members noticed that Hill and his chief operating officer, Phyllis Thompson, were making most agency decisions without consulting anyone else.
"My understanding was that we [board members] would have input," said Andrea Kidd-Taylor, named to the board in November 1998. "I saw that things were already in motion, but being new, I said okay."
By law, the board has five members, including the chairman, all of them full-time jobs, and all subject to Senate confirmation. Currently four positions are filled.
In April of this year, Kidd-Taylor said Hill, without consulting anyone else, decided that the board would not undertake any new investigations, citing a shortage of funds. The agency currently has an $8 million budget and has eight investigations underway.
Meanwhile, the board asked the agency's general counsel to prepare a report outlining members' responsibilities. The document issued Aug. 30 said that while the chairman "plays the key role" in management and administration, the entire board "can exercise oversight" over key decisions on budget, resource allocation and personnel.
The report also acknowledged that the chairman and board members "will need to agree on their precise roles" to resolve key disputes in the division of labor and power. But by the fall, consensus appeared to be impossible.
On Oct. 29, Hill unilaterally requested a doubling of the budget, to $16 million in 2001, so the agency could open three regional offices and order a feasibility study for a laboratory. But on Nov. 5, the board voted to "direct the chairman" to retract the budget request pending a review by the entire panel.
"It is embarrassing for those of us who were advocates of the board," said Richard Miller, a chemical workers union policy analyst, who blamed a Hill "power play" for the impasse.
Miller suggested that Lautenberg provide "immediate adult supervision, by letting Hill and his colleagues know that a $16 million request for a dysfunctional agency with few congressional friends is a recipe for the board's extermination."
On Nov. 10, Hill went home to West Virginia, announcing that "until further notice, I will be on personal/medical leave" and leaving Thompson in charge.
"We immediately sent off e-mails inquiring about his condition, but we haven't heard anything back," board member Gerald Poje said. The board then began issuing a series of directives ordering Thompson to provide information necessary for them to take control of the agency. On Nov. 19, Thompson said "I respectfully refuse," without approval from Hill.
Hill said he was only "going off for a few days to get some [medical] testing done" and expected to be back at work by the end of next week. He said he was in contact with his office "all the time." There was no mystery intended: "You were able to pick up a phone and call me," he told a reporter. "Not one of them has."