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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."

Environmental Justice Becoming Just a Platitude at EPA; New “Action Plan” Neuters Enforceable Protection for Overburdened Communities

By Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, July 14, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — The proposed new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Action Agenda” for environmental justice contains precious little action and continues to marginalize disadvantaged communities beset by disproportionate pollution burdens, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The EPA plan focuses on symbolic steps that will do little to lift the pollution burden off the poor.

Public comment closes today on EPA’s draft “EJ [Environmental Justice] 2020 Action Agenda framework” which would guide agency efforts over the next five years to make “a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities,” according to the agency website. PEER faults this new iteration for, among other reasons, its –

  • Divorce of environmental justice from its underlying basis in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This separation has reduced environmental justice to a largely voluntary program;
  • Absence of any guidance for state and local recipients of EPA funds, leaving the program as an intellectual exercise for EPA staff with little practical consequence; and
  • Lack of any enforceable regulation or even a plan to promulgate any.

“At EPA, environmental justice has devolved into aspirational window-dressing,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency has yet to take promised steps to enable communities to defend themselves. “EPA’s ongoing failure to put some teeth into this program only perpetuates environmental injustice.”

The PEER comments urge EPA to adopt best practices from other agencies. For example, the Federal Highway Administration commits itself to “identify and address” undue pollution impacts in communities. By contrast, the EPA plan seeks to “build partnerships” to negotiate away problems.

“In the face of environmental racism, the EPA stance is that of a passive cheerleader,” added Ruch, pointing out that despite its muddled approach EPA is charged with coordinating environmental justice efforts among all federal agencies. “EPA has not even been able to develop guidance to implement the civil rights requirements underlying its environmental justice policies in the hundreds of state and local programs it funds, in the very communities bearing the brunt of pollution-driven insults to public health.”

The PEER comments also describe the fragmented and conflicted cross-currents within EPA that have caused various internal reform efforts to be stillborn. In addition, the agency has a history of civil rights complaints inside its own workforce. “Since EPA has not addressed the civil rights issues within its ranks, it is ill equipped to remedy those same problems outside its hallways,” Ruch concluded.

Feds Find Gaping Holes in CALOSHA Safety Net; Serious Enforcement and Inspection Failures Put California Workers at Risk

By Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, July 1, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — The, U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has cited the worker health and safety program in California for falling below minimum performance standards in response to a complaint filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the state
Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) must upgrade its enforcement and inspection programs or face a variety of federal sanctions.

In a letter to PEER dated June 26, 2015, OSHA Area Director David Shiraishi upheld the bulk of the “Complaint about State Program Administration” that PEER filed in February 2014. In its review, OSHA found that Cal/OSHA:

  • Fails to conduct an adequate number of inspections in dangerous workplaces and fails to follow its own policy of doing follow-up inspections on serious violators;
  • Does not issue citations in a timely manner, thus delaying hazard abatement and prolonging dangerous conditions. OSHA found the “amount of time Cal/OSHA takes to issue citations is 69% longer than OSHA for safety inspections and 33% longer for health inspections”; and
  • Takes too long to respond to worker complaints of unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Cal/OSHA “averaged almost working four days to initiate investigations for complaints alleging serious hazards” with one serious complaint sitting 106 days. For non-serious complaints, Cal/OSHA averaged more than two weeks before inspecting with one case sitting 300 days.

The OSHA letter contains recommendations for how Cal/OSHA can remedy the identified failures while concluding that “the State Plan is required to remedy these deficiencies.” Like California, nearly half the states are funded by OSHA to operate their own state plans which, by law, must be at least as effective as the federal program. This finding means that California is not meeting that minimum threshold.

U.S. INDUSTRIAL SAFETY LAGS ALARMINGLY BEHIND DEVELOPED WORLD: U.S. Industrial Loss Burden 3 Times European Union and Gap Is Growing

Press Release - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), July 9, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — America’s industrial infrastructure is substantially more susceptible to catastrophic failure than those in other industrialized countries, according to reports posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In certain key sectors, such as petrochemicals, aging U.S. refineries are become more dangerous with each passing month.

The combined losses from the fires, explosions and spills regularly plaguing U.S. chemical plants takes a proportionately greater toll than in the rest of the world. For example, the reinsurance giant, Swiss Re, concludes that the sum of all reinsurance losses (the “loss burden”) in refining, petrochemical processing and gas processing industry in the U.S. is approximately three times that of the comparably sized sector in the European Union (EU), with the rest of the world similar to the EU cluster.

Beyond economic losses, the toll on American workers is also higher. A study entitled “Occupational Fatality Risks in the United States and the United Kingdom” published earlier this year in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found the fatality rate of U.S. workers approximately three times that of workers in the U.K. American worker deaths from chemical exposure were more than 10 times higher than their U.K. counterparts; death by fire nearly 5 times and by explosion nearly 4 times as likely.

Rather than improving, some key U.S. industrial sectors are declining.

Why U.S. is Not Embracing Inherently Safer Chemical Plants: Chevron Richmond Refinery Explosion Ignored in GOP Red Herring Oversight

Contact: Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Jun 25, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — Republican lawmakers are using phony whistleblower claims to serve a corporate agenda of blocking critical steps to prevent future chemical plant explosions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nearly two years after a massive oil refinery fire sickened 15,000 California residents, the official federal safety report urging adoption of inherently safer technologies still languishes due to both internal and external opposition.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents in fixed facilities. It does not issue fines or citations, but makes recommendations to plants, regulatory agencies, industry organizations and labor. In a House hearing last week, Government Reform & Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa released an 84-page staff report making no mention of a critical February 10, 2014 memo from CSB investigative staff defending their Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso and decrying delay of their report on the Chevron refinery.

In August 2012, Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California sprung a leak in a steel pipeline which gasified into a plume and then ignited, eventually creating a chemical cloud that forced 15,000 residents in the San Francisco Bay Area to seek medical care. The leak in the steel piping was caused by sulfidation corrosion, in which the sulfur in the petroleum eats away at the steel. There had been a similar leak at the Chevron refinery just the week prior. Chevron had four such leaks in its other refineries that year.

After reviewing the Chevron Richmond disaster, CSB issued a draft staff report calling for a preventive rather than reactive approach to chemical plant disasters. The draft report urged adoption of inherently safer design and also urged putting the onus on facility operators to choose materials and technologies that prevent foreseeable flaws. This approach is used in the U.K., Australia and Norway but not in the U.S.

Yet when the CSB convened this January, two members of the board opposed the Chair’s attempt to adopt the draft report urging inherently safer design. As a result, the Chevron report remains in limbo.