Specter of ICE Looms Over Investigation of Fatal Poultry Plant Disaster

Trump appointee working at the Chemical Safety Board allegedly communicated with ICE
(Illustration: Renzo Velez / Pogo)

A senior political appointee from the Trump administration still employed at a federal safety agency investigating a fatal chemical disaster at a Georgia poultry plant has been in communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a highly unusual move, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has learned from multiple sources in touch with agency insiders. Details of the communication are closely held inside the agency and unknown to POGO. Sources tell POGO that plant workers—many of whom allegedly are undocumented—fear being arrested or monitored by ICE while going to and from witness interviews.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is an independent agency responsible for investigating industrial chemical accidents and is commonly referred to as the Chemical Safety Board. But that work at the Gainesville, Georgia, poultry plant could be hamstrung if ICE becomes involved. The fear of an ICE presence is already chilling worker participation in the investigation. 

Word of the agency’s contact with ICE has spread to local advocates who have warned that any appearance of ICE involvement will potentially undermine the Chemical Safety Board’s investigation into the January 28 disaster that killed six.

The fear of an ICE presence is already chilling worker participation in the investigation.

Sources told POGO that the appointee, senior advisor Bruce Walker, advised Chemical Safety Board leadership against providing assurances to Latino advocacy groups that undocumented workers cooperating with the agency would be protected from ICE, because he had already been directly in touch with ICE. Sources also said Walker was aware that plainclothes immigration officers could be monitoring Chemical Safety Board activities, such as witness interviews held at local hotels.

To date, there have been no reports of workers being arrested near interview sites by ICE or local law enforcement, who participate in a controversial ICE program allowing them to enforce federal immigration laws. But a report last Thursday by Prism, a nonprofit newsroom, states that investigators working for Foundation Food Group, which owns the poultry plant, “are grilling the survivors about their nationality and immigration status.” Foundation Food Group did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Despite repeated requests for a simple response as to whether the Chemical Safety Board was in contact with ICE, the board’s spokesperson refused to answer over the course of multiple email exchanges over several days, only stating that there had been “no coordination with ICE regarding the Gainesville investigation.” The spokesperson acknowledged that the agency had been in touch with the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part. The spokesperson would not provide answers to repeated requests to specify which DHS components the agency was interacting with. The spokesperson did not comment on Walker’s role in the interactions.

A veteran Chemical Safety Board employee who recently left the agency said it is “highly unusual” for the agency to be in touch with ICE, and that communication with ICE threatens to derail the board’s investigation into the accident at the plant.

Four other former Chemical Safety Board employees echoed those concerns in interviews with POGO. Those former employees are in touch with current staffers who have told them about the agency’s challenges in obtaining cooperation from a reluctant, fearful, and particularly vulnerable workforce. Any appearance of working with ICE could damage the agency’s ability to conduct an effective investigation. Former staffers, as well as advocates for workers at the plant, suggested that there are ways the agency could protect the plant workers from potential immigration enforcement and also protect the investigation, and noted that it has done so in the past.

The news of Walker’s communication with ICE has rippled through the Chemical Safety Board’s workforce, prompting an internal uproar among staff who did not sign up to be involved in enforcing immigration laws, but who are focused on the agency’s mission of ensuring safety regardless of their personal political views. One person close to the agency said it is “very disheartening” to agency staff. Another source wrote, “This is causing a large stir among investigators.”

“We do the best we can to protect people and the information they provide,” one person with close ties to the agency said. The contact with ICE is “a kick in the gut regardless of where you stand on immigration. … This ICE thing made us appear to be liars.”

The sources’ identities are being withheld because of fear of retaliation inside the Chemical Safety Board, which has roughly 40 employees. Many spoke to POGO reluctantly because they fear hurting the ongoing investigation, which involved the deployment of a team of Chemical Safety Board employees and officials soon after the January 28 disaster and may take over a year to conduct, but said that much trust had already been lost with the plant workers and their representatives.

This ICE thing made us appear to be liars.

A Chemical Safety Board spokesperson told POGO, “we have actively worked with Latino community advocacy groups in Gainesville and will continue these efforts to ensure the safety of their communities.” The spokesperson further wrote, “Our deployment is in furtherance of safety to the community, workforce, and environment and to insinuate any CSB focus outside of our mission would not be rooted in fact.”

Details of Walker’s communication with ICE are not widely known outside of a handful of the senior-most officials at the safety board, but sources say Walker was likely also in touch with the Department of Homeland Security because of terrorism concerns at chemical facilities.

An Agency on “Life Support”

Last November, two weeks after Election Day, the Chemical Safety Board heralded Walker’s appointment in a press release with the headline, “President Trump Appoints Walker as Senior Advisor.” Former longtime agency employees tell POGO it would be unprecedented for a president to be involved in appointing anyone at levels lower than the agency’s five-person governing board, which currently only has one member, its chairman and CEO, Katherine A. Lemos. 

A Chemical Safety Board spokesperson acknowledged that the only presidential appointments at the agency are its “board members and the chairman,” but that the White House’s Office of Presidential Personnel approved Walker’s political appointment as a non-career senior executive.

Lemos was appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate last March. Her previous employer was Northrop Grumman, where Walker also previously worked as vice president of homeland security, civil, regulatory and international affairs, and where he conducted business with ICE. (Lemos has also worked as a career employee at the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.) In the press release announcing Walker’s appointment, Lemos said, “He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and relationships directly relevant to the CSB’s mission.”

According to former agency employees, Walker poses a threat not only to his agency’s mission but to the new administration’s policy positions. Biden has pledged to improve worker safety and dial back Trump’s hardline immigration enforcement.

The Trump administration had repeatedly proposed abolishing the Chemical Safety Board. Some have described the agency as being on “life support” after years of leadership turmoil, staff turnover, and loss of expertise. These issues predate Trump’s presidency, but the agency’s productivity appears to have taken a nosedive over the last year, much of that during Lemos’s time as chair.

According to former agency employees, Walker poses a threat not only to his agency’s mission but to the new administration’s policy positions.

Several sources told POGO that, despite the rocky times, the agency’s remaining career staff are dedicated to its mission. The career staff, many of whom are engineers who could earn more money in the private sector, make the small agency “punch above our weight bracket,” one said.

“A Fear-Filled Environment”

On January 28, 2021, a liquid nitrogen line used to flash-freeze chicken ruptured at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia, killing six workers. Twelve others were hospitalized. During a 911 call, a person on the scene said of one victim: “He’s foaming at the mouth. Eyes are open. Struggling. I see some firemen inside. He’s breathing very slowly.”

A Chemical Safety Board team began deploying to the scene of the disaster that same day, where investigators faced challenges they do not normally encounter. A typical Chemical Safety Board investigation occurs at an industrial facility like an oil refinery where the profile of the workforce is different than the one in Gainesville, Georgia.

At the poultry plant, many of the workers are not native English speakers, and many allegedly are undocumented. This makes the threat of deportation a powerful tool for their employer to suppress cooperation with an investigation that could lead to findings that could damage the plant’s reputation and help create a case for legal liability.

Worker safety and immigrant rights advocates have warned that the specter of immigration enforcement puts the employees, their families, and the accident investigation at risk. Such investigations rely heavily on the voluntary cooperation of workers with knowledge of the events that may have led to the accident as well as of the broader context, such as management attention to safety matters and earlier complaints. “These workers represent potential witnesses in an ongoing safety and health investigation that claimed the lives of six workers, and their ongoing availability is vital to understanding the cause of the incident,” advocates wrote in a February 1 letter.

Former agency employees in touch with colleagues still at the Chemical Safety Board told POGO that it has been difficult for investigators to convince workers to participate in interviews.

Paul Glaze, a community organizer with Georgia Familias Unidas, told POGO that there is “a very fear-filled environment,” and the workers have “never experienced a friendly government.”

He said he wants the Chemical Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to “conduct an impartial investigation” into the accident. (OSHA’s investigation is separate from the Chemical Safety Board’s, but they sometimes share information.)

The fact that the board’s investigators “got out here fairly quickly” was a hopeful sign, Glaze said, as was new information the board released in the days following the accident. But he also said of the Chemical Safety Board’s investigation at the plant, “A single, Trump appointee is now in charge of investigating abuses at a company that targets undocumented labor. I can’t speak to the Chairwoman’s heart, but I can tell you that the workers don’t trust her or that agency, and they’re usually right about situations like this.”

To underscore how ICE can undermine safety investigations, Glaze pointed to Trump-era ICE raids in Mississippi at poultry plants that had racked up worker health and safety violations as making undocumented workers less likely to voluntarily cooperate with investigators from OSHA or other federal agencies. “We want to believe the incoming administration’s commitment to workers, including undocumented workers, is legit,” Glaze said. He recommended that the Department of Homeland Security create a no-enforcement zone around the Foundation Food Group’s plant to encourage workers to come forward.

During natural disasters and other emergencies, the Department of Homeland Security has previously declared no-enforcement zones, including under the Trump administration. In February 2016, the department announced that ICE and Customs and Border Protection would not conduct enforcement operations “at or near locations distributing clean water in Flint, Michigan or surrounding areas affected by the current water situation,” and that “DHS officials do not and will not pose as individuals providing water-related information or distributing clean water as part of any enforcement activities.”

If ICE agents or local law enforcement are present near the witness-interview locations, there is reason to think that workers may at least temporarily be insulated from arrest or deportation, or should be. An ICE policy guidance advises agents to “exercise all appropriate discretion on a case-by-case basis when making detention and enforcement decisions in the cases of victims of crime, witnesses to crime, and individuals pursuing legitimate civil rights complaints.” However, ICE’s record of complying with the guidance has been inconsistent. ICE did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

A single, Trump appointee is now in charge of investigating abuses at a company that targets undocumented labor.

Hall County, where Gainesville is located, is part of ICE’s 287(g) program, which effectively delegates immigration enforcement authority to the sheriff’s department. In 2017, as the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown was ramping up in Georgia and elsewhere, Univision reported, “with the change in administration and the year’s first raids, fear began to overtake Gainesville’s immigrants, who are mostly Mexican. Many of them stopped driving, afraid that a traffic stop—however minor—could end in deportation.”

A former Chemical Safety Board staffer pointed POGO to a 2008 investigation at the Imperial Sugar Company in Port Wentworth, Georgia, as an example of how the agency can conduct an independent, safety-focused investigation without being in communication with ICE. Out of 36 injured workers, 10 to 15 were undocumented, and the former staffer said the Chemical Safety Board had no interactions with ICE. Although the Chemical Safety Board shared information with other agencies, it did not share witnesses’ identities, according to the former staffer, who said, “We have a track record of doing this the right way.”

The Chemical Safety Board has long faced criticism for its often-lengthy investigations, and, in recent years, has been short-staffed. According to the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, fiscal year 2020 “appears to be the first in the agency’s 23-year history when no new safety recommendations were issued, compared to a prior average of about 38 per year.” The agency has a record-high backlog of 19 investigations and has issued no investigative reports since December 2019.

When asked about the criticism, an agency spokesperson said the Chemical Safety Board has “been quite busy on the advocacy front” by releasing new guidance, best practices documents, and safety videos. The spokesperson said the agency has hired six new chemical incident investigators and released public updates in four ongoing investigations, and is working to advance seven recommendations from previously completed investigations. But those moves haven’t satisfied everyone on the inside.

One former Chemical Safety Board employee said the concerns from inside the agency are not about politics, and praised Carolyn W. Merritt, the George W. Bush-appointed chair of the agency who presided over the investigation of the Texas City BP refinery explosion, where 15 were killed in 2005. “She was bold in her leadership” and independent of industry, the former employee said.

But now, it’s “a regime of an entirely different character,” the former staffer said.