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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

A Whistleblowers Journey

UAlbany says PCB researcher may resume teaching on campus

By Brendan J. Lyons - Albany Times-Union, February 21, 2023

The university's announcement came nine months after Dr. David Carpenter was directed not to visit any campuses and to perform his duties from home.

ALBANY — The University at Albany late Tuesday said that Dr. David O. Carpenter, the longtime director of the school's Institute for Health and the Environment, will not face discipline and "is no longer on an alternate assignment and may now teach and conduct research on campus."

The university's announcement came as Carpenter received increasing support from environmental advocates to be reinstated after he was directed nine months ago not to visit any campuses and to perform his duties from home as the school investigated his extensive work testifying as an expert witness in toxic pollution cases.

"UAlbany’s investigation regarding Dr. Carpenter has concluded, and no discipline will be imposed based on such investigation," a university spokesman said in a statement. "As is standard, UAlbany and Dr. Carpenter also entered into a Conflict Management Plan to ensure future activities are carried out in compliance with all applicable laws and policies. UAlbany reiterates in the strongest possible terms our full commitment to unfettered academic freedom."

Carpenter became the subject of a disciplinary investigation last year after a Freedom of Information Law request was filed by an attorney with Shook Hardy & Bacon, a Missouri law firm that represents Monsanto Company in toxic pollution cases it has faced across the nation.

Carpenter, who said he donates the money he receives from his expert testimony to Ph.D. students and the university's research program, has testified against Monsanto in numerous "toxic tort" cases — in which plaintiffs allege injuries from toxic substances — that have yielded multi-million-dollar verdicts against the company.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Carpenter said he is "very happy that the university has concluded its investigation and announced that my work as an expert witness did not merit discipline."

Carpenter will be able to resume his outside work testifying as an expert witness in toxic pollution cases but will also sign a "conflict management plan to ensure future activities are carried out in compliance with all applicable laws and policies," the unversity said.

Extreme Judicial Activism in West Virginia v. EPA

By Kevin Bell - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, June 30, 2022

Ruling will restrict the federal government’s ability to address climate change

The Supreme Court issued a decision today in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency that will hamstring the federal government’s ability to issue a wide range of regulations covering the environment, public health, climate change and the economy.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the Clean Air Act’s grant of authority for EPA to implement the “best system of emission reductions” does not allow a nationwide system capping total carbon emissions to force a transition away from the use of fossil fuels. Its reasoning is, essentially, that the EPA cannot use this kind of system because it has never done it before. The court explicitly declined to determine what “system of emissions reductions” it would allow, leaving EPA, and every other agency in government, to guess what a reviewing court will or will not allow.

The ruling, in effect, smothers any attempt to use EPA’s existing statutory authorities to control carbon emissions or meaningfully slow climate change.

Instead of applying the Constitution, the Court relied on a relatively new conservative judicial theory called the “major questions doctrine.” The “major questions doctrine” holds that courts should not defer to agency statutory interpretations that concern questions of “vast economic or political significance.” However, in reality, this nebulous doctrine allows the judicial branch of government to usurp the power of the legislative and executive branches of government by allowing judges to insert themselves into any issue they find important economically or politically. It also further undermines 40 –years of precedent known as “Chevron Deference” which calls on judges to accept reasonable interpretations of a statute by an administrative agency.

EPA union urges Minnesota Supreme Court to take up PolyMet case

By staff - Duluth News Tribune, March 10, 2022

DULUTH — The union representing many midwest employees of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to take up a PolyMet case challenging the proposed copper-nickel mine's water permit.

The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 and other groups filed briefs urging the court to reconsider a January decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirming a 2020 decision by a State District Court judge who said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency broke no laws or procedures by asking the EPA to keep comments on the permit private. It acknowledged such a move was made to prevent comments from reaching the public and leading to "bad press."

In 2019, AFGE Local 704 said it learned from a whistleblower that comments by the EPA Region 5 office in Chicago on a draft of PolyMet's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, were left out of the public record.

“Simply put, when a government agency acts in secret — or deliberately obscures its motives or reasoning — it becomes difficult to tell whether the agency’s actions were lawful or fair," the union wrote in its brief.

EPA Officials Interfered with Chemical Safety Studies

By staff - Union of Concerned Scientists, February 17, 2022

What happened: Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directed agency staff to alter certain chemical safety studies in a way that downplayed the chemical’s health risks. EPA officials have pressured staff to alter hazard information, undermine research, and remove scientific information on potentially toxic chemicals.

Why it matters: By interfering with chemical safety studies, EPA officials undermined one of the major ways by which the federal government protects people from exposure to toxic chemicals. Not only does this action violate the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but it also endangers the health and safety of communities across the US, especially underserved communities.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are pressuring agency employees to tamper with the risk assessments of dozens of hazardous chemicals by excluding evidence of adverse health impacts. Reports of deleted language and major revisions in chemical risk assessments against the consent of agency scientists in response to higher management violates the rules and regulations as outlined by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 which states the EPA is required to uphold the “reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures.”

Four EPA scientists who worked at the agency's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention stated that they had experienced numerous incidents in which management and staff pressured them or their colleagues to alter risk assessments in a way that fell out of line with the best available scientific evidence. In a complaint submitted to the EPA inspector on behalf of the four scientists, these unauthorized interferences include deleted language identifying potential adverse effects of toxic chemicals, major revisions that alter the conclusions of a toxic chemical’s toxicity, and risk assessments being assigned to inexperienced employees to avoid pushback.

Protecting Workers Engaged In Protecting The Environment

Deep-Sea Mining for Metals: Treading Carefully on the Path Toward Renewables

By Katherine Wilkin - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, June 8, 2021

As the push for renewable energy sources continues as a means to combat climate change, the demand for metals and minerals that make up critical components of clean energy technology will be on the rise. While some of these minerals can be obtained via deep-sea mining, the environmental impacts of such efforts are not well understood. In moving to a clean energy economy, governments and international non-governmental organizations need to research, understand, and mitigate the negative impacts to the environment and communities that can and will result from activities like deep-sea mining before allowing projects to go forward.

The United States Geological Survey has identified 11 metals and minerals as critical commodities in renewable energy technologies: arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earth elements. Silver, copper, selenium, silica, nickel, and cadmium are also used in solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Several of these critical metals and elements can be obtained via deep-sea mining from three different types of deposits: (i) cobalt-rich crust that contains manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel and platinum; (ii) polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, molybdenum and rare earth elements; and (iii) sea-floor massive sulphides which contain copper, gold, zinc, lead, barium and silver.

Whether deep-sea mining is necessary to acquire enough minerals to fuel the renewable energy shift remains an unanswered question. In a May 2021 report on the need for minerals to power energy transition technologies, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2040, total mineral demand for clean energy will be four times current demand. Electric vehicles and battery storage technology account for about half of this predicted growth in mineral demand. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney indicated in 2016 that this increased demand for materials can be satisfied without utilizing deep-sea mining even under a target of 100% renewable energy use by 2050. Further, Carbon Brief reported in 2018 that reserves of lithium and cobalt are likely to be sufficient to meet demand, but there are outstanding concerns of supply chain bottleneck causing delays. This is supported by the IEA report, which indicated that problems in supply of minerals is more likely to be a matter of quality rather than quantity. However, a 2018 study supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure found that the current supply of critical metals is not enough to transition to a fully-renewable energy system in the Netherlands. Additionally, a 2019 projection of demand for cobalt, lithium, and silver looking as far as 2050 found that “reserves” of these materials—a portion of total available resources that can be extracted economically—will not be sufficient to meet demand for cobalt, and demand for lithium can only be met in a “potential recycling scenario” with improved recycling rates over what is being conducted at present.

With the growing demand for metals and materials for use in renewable energy technologies, concerns arise about the environmental impacts and environmental justice implications of mining on land. For example, cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the site of human rights violations, child labor, and severe environmental pollution. For that reason, deep-sea mining of these materials may present an option with fewer direct human impacts and environmental justice concerns.

Farewell to FWS – Goodbye to Gag Orders

By Brian Czech - CASSE, February 2018

Open letter to FWS, sent directly to FWS employees on February 7, 2018:

Friends, colleagues, and past FWS co-workers,

I once considered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be the world leader in conservation, and was proud to sign on! But that was a long time ago: 1999 to be precise. Today, something is awry at FWS headquarters, and that’s what drove me to retire on October 31. Within the leadership ranks of the National Wildlife Refuge System, especially, ethical lapses have led to corrupt tendencies. The mission has suffered and careers have been impacted; none more than mine, which was perennially crippled by gag orders.

The prohibited topic? The trade-off between economic growth and wildlife conservation, also known as the “800-pound gorilla.” The trade-off was the focus of my Ph.D. research in the 1990’s, when I documented the causes of species endangerment as a who’s who of the American economy. I presented these causes in Science, elaborated in Bioscience, and detailed the sociopolitical context in a book on the Endangered Species Act.

The gag orders were ironic, because my background on the 800-pound gorilla was one of the reasons FWS hired me to begin with. As the first “conservation biologist” for the National Wildlife Refuge System, I was told to “think big,” “long term,” and “outside the box.” Beginning in 2001, though, I was strung along by Refuge System chiefs who said “It has to be talked about, but now is not the time.” I waited patiently for the right time to come, occasionally re-testing the waters and invariably getting re-gagged.

While the gag orders started in 2001, the harshest one was issued in 2011 while a previous director awaited his Senate confirmation hearings. I was prohibited from saying “anything having to do with economics.” Another ham-handed order was issued in 2016 as the presidential primaries heated up. All the orders – along with reprimands, suspensions, and various other forms of coercion – were designed to buffer appointees, chiefs, and deputies who were petrified by the politics of economic growth. Such abject fear belied the talents of one appointee who boasted, “I can drink politics with a firehose.”

Not all FWS or DOI programs are inclined to evade the topic. Rather, a clique of Refuge System chiefs has squashed every reasonable effort to raise public awareness of the trade-off between growth and conservation. Now we are paying for this lack of awareness across the landscape.

Lest anyone think the gag orders reflected a technical disagreement, I quote a long-time Refuge System chief: “Everybody knows there’s a conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation. It’s just not our role to talk about it.” Thankfully such shirking doesn’t infect every agency. Imagine the Surgeon General acquiescing, “Everybody knows smoking causes cancer. It’s just not our role to talk about it.”

Furthermore, the chief was off-base with “everybody knows,” unless he considered “everybody” to be FWS, where we’ve all witnessed the growing economy usurping, eroding, or polluting habitats. He failed to acknowledge the widespread misinformation outside FWS. Politicians, seeking to appease, mislead the public with, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

The gag orders weren’t politically affiliated, either. The win-win rhetoric of “no conflict” was common to Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It was patently false in a bipartisan way, “everybody knew it” (at least in FWS), and sound science had refuted it. Yet to this day the win-win rhetoric constantly re-appears in public forums from the local town hall to the halls of Congress. It attracts wishful followers of all kinds, enough of them to keep economic growth atop the pedestal of domestic policy.

If the gag orders stemmed from neither technical disagreement nor political fealty, then why were they issued? In my opinion the answer is an indictment of an agency gone astray.

Delta Tunnels: Bureau of Reclamation is “Beyond reclamation.”

By Dan Bacher - Red, Green, and Blue, September 11, 2017

“Three recent federal audits have found the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation misspending more than $100 million in funds but the agency has not committed to any meaningful reforms nor to punishing any responsible officials,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“The latest audit, last week, identified $84.8 million in improper Bureau of Reclamation payments to the State of California for its controversial Delta Tunnel Project. Despite this finding, the Bureau has no stated plans to recover even a penny.”

“Three recent critical audits arose from reports by Reclamation’s own employees represented by PEER. In the latest report on Friday, the Inspector General (IG) for the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Reclamation illegally siphoned off funds to benefit fish and wildlife for the Delta Tunnel, a project to trans-ship vast quantities of freshwater from the Sacramento River and Delta to the south.  This project does not benefit fish and wildlife – just the opposite – but will principally benefit south-state irrigators,” PEER said.

This is the third recent “scathing report” on Reclamation misappropriations, according to the whistleblower group:

  • In late August, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Reclamation illegally gave $32 million to Klamath Basin irrigators, again misusing funds earmarked for protecting fish and wildlife.  This ruling validated an earlier IG report confirming whistleblower disclosures; and
  • In October, the IG found that Reclamation never collected “repayment of millions of dollars of costs incurred to design, construct, and operate and maintain new head gates and fish screens” within the Klamath Project. These gates and screens are supposed to keep federally protected fish “in the river and out of the Klamath project irrigation canals

The misuse of funds in the Klamath Basin couldn’t have come at a worse time. The number of fall Chinook salmon predicted to return to the Klamath and Trinity rivers in 2017 — approximately 11,000 fish — is the lowest on record, a result of two consecutive juvenile fish disease outbreaks and other factors, including water diversions, dams, drought and ocean conditions.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council closed recreational and commercial salmon fishing in the Klamath Management Zone this season. Recreational fishing for fall run Chinook is banned on the Trinity and Klamath rivers this year.

Free-Speech Restrictions Leave Federal Workers Anxious About Challenging Trump

By Mike Ludwig - Truthout, February 14, 2017

Recent internal memos on how and when federal employees can speak their minds has left those frustrated by President Trump in murky waters, according to advocates.

For climate scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or rogue members of the National Park Service, this uncertainty around their ability to speak without fear of reprisal is causing confusion and despair as the Trump administration assumes control and attempts to assert its version of the facts, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that represents civil servants at agencies like the EPA.

"There will be a number of instances where people are speaking their minds and the rules aren't all that clear," said PEER Director Jeff Ruch, who counsels government employees about their rights. "And you have a chief executive who is somewhat thin-skinned, and that may trickle down through his appointees," who could punish employees for actions perceived as dissent.

Ruch said there seems to be a "level of mutual mistrust" between civil servants who staff federal agencies as nonpartisan workers and President Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to gut agencies like the EPA, and announced a hiring freeze for many agencies shortly after taking office.

"The hiring freeze was not an economic measure but an effort to drain the swamp, as if [federal employees] are a malignant force and, if you can bleed them off, then government will be better," Ruch said. "And a lot of this could be offensive to some of these career civil servants."

Some civil servants have dared to challenge Trump. Since the National Park Service's Twitter account was temporarily shuttered after it questioned White House statements on the size of the crowd at Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, dozens of "alternative" federal agency accounts (such as AltEPA and AltFDA) have opened and amassed followings that rival their official counterparts.

These accounts identify with the anti-Trump resistance, and are unofficial. Many make it clear that tweets and posts are not coming from government employees in their official capacity, if from government employees at all. Ruch said PEER has been fielding questions from operators of these alternative accounts, which often challenge Trump's public statements and draw attention to the latest climate science.

Agency employees who speak out against Trump are treading on difficult ground, particularly since federal civil servants have limited rights to free speech in the workplace. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect public employees for statements made while acting in their official capacity, making it risky to speak out against a new administration that has been openly hostile to the media and anyone else who challenges its narrative.

Moreover, the Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits the vast majority of federal employees from participating in certain political activities on the job, including advocating for and against political candidates. Trump has filed 2020 campaign paperwork and is considered a political candidate. This means that federal employees are prohibited from speaking for or against his reelection in their official capacity, according to a memo circulated by the US Office of Special Counsel last week.

Ruch said making a statement as simple as, "This is a disaster, we've got to get rid of this guy," around the water cooler at a federal office could apparently cost a federal employee their job.

Federal employees do have First Amendment rights as private citizens, but that doesn't protect them in the workplace. Not too long after the White House's snafu with the National Park Service's Twitter account, the EPA sent out an agency-wide memo advising employees about the difference between addressing the public as an EPA employee and in their "individual personal capacity."

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