Inhofe, whistleblowers blast EPA for ‘totally ignoring science’

Published September 1, 1999

Expressing his dismay over the treatment of science and scientists at EPA, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) pledged to hold hearings soon to address the agency’s abusive tactics.

Inhofe, who is expected to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee upon the retirement of Chairman John Chafee late next year, acknowledged that he has been sought ought by EPA scientists complaining about their treatment by the agency.

Inhofe addressed an overflow crowd at a July 20 Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the Lexington Institute. Commenting on EPA’s disregard for science in proposing and promulgating new standards for ground-level ozone (smog) and particulate matter, Inhofe described the agency’s handling of those standards as “most offensive.”

Scientists “Viewed as Adversaries”

According to scientist David Lewis, a 28-year veteran of EPA, the misuse of science at the agency has gone from the “chronic to the acute.” He warned that political considerations matter more to agency officials than scientific evidence. Scientists who question agency decisions on scientific grounds “are viewed as adversaries,” he said, creating an “atmosphere of fear at EPA.”

Lewis’ remarks were echoed by Brian Rimar, a former EPA scientist at the agency’s Denver regional office. “EPA scientists at the regional level are not allowed to carry out real science,” Rimar explained. Scientists at the agency “have become a joke” in the scientific community, Rimar said, because it is widely known that EPA managers ignore science when formulating and implementing agency policies.

Both Rimar and Lewis were harassed by EPA managers after they pointed out how agency policies lacked a sound scientific footing. Each was subjected to trumped-up charges of ethics violations and driven from the agency. EPA later settled with the scientists for over $100,000 each, even giving Lewis a letter of apology.

Attorney Stephen Kohn, chairman of the National Whistleblowers Center, pointed out that Congress has passed seven environmental whistleblower protection laws, all of which are regularly ignored by EPA. EPA managers, including officials in the Office of General Counsel, don’t even know the laws exist, he explained.

Kohn told the audience that EPA whistleblowers are routinely bad-mouthed–publicly and privately–by their superiors. In one recent case involving agency harassment of a scientist, a judge ordered EPA to train its managers on how to deal with whistleblowers under the law. According to Kohn, no such training has taken place.

Kohn, like Rimar and Lewis, was highly critical of EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), whose conduct he described as “outrageous.” The OIG was created under the Carter administration to address waste, fraud, and abuse in federal agencies and to protect whistleblowers. But in recent years, the speakers emphasized, inspectors general have been used by agency managers as a tool to suppress whistleblowers at EPA.

Poor Science Abounds

EPA policies are regularly unsupported by science, conference attendees were told. Among the examples speakers offered:

  • EPA’s lack of reliable scientific data at Superfund sites. Rimar noted there are Superfund sites where no risk assessments have been made. “They don’t know what the pollutants are, and they don’t know what they’re cleaning up,” he said.
  • EPA Administrator Carol Browner’s decision in December 1998 to overrule the recommendation of the agency’s scientists to establish a science-based standard for chloroform in drinking water. Browner’s action, Lewis said, will force water system operators to waste resources combating fictitious threats resulting from the purification of drinking water.
  • EPA’s lack of data on the water quality of the nation’s rivers. In May of this year, a study titled Murky Waters: Official Water Quality Reports Are All Wet: An Inside View of EPA’s Implementation of the Clean Water Act was released by a group calling itself Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. According to the study, EPA does not have the science to measure water quality. The authors of Murky Waters identify themselves as EPA employees and state environmental officials who choose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Epa Relationship with States No Better

Becky Norton Dunlop, former director of Department of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, similarly described the relationship between EPA and state environmental agencies as one of “fear and distrust.”

Saying EPA under the current administration is the “most politicized” she has ever seen it, Dunlop criticized the agency for frequently seeing state environmental agencies as competitors. When disputes arise between EPA and the states, she noted, the agency often “threatens to keep tax dollars in Washington rather than have the funds go to the states for environmental protection programs.”

As an example of the agency’s hypocrisy, Dunlop said the very week EPA promulgated its new ozone and particulate matter standards, metropolitan Washington was under a “code red” warning, indicating unhealthy levels of ozone.

But when Virginia officials suggested the federal government close down temporarily to avoid aggravating the situation, they were told there was “no plan” to do so, and that the move would be “too expensive.” In other words, while EPA was trumpeting the health risks of high levels of ozone, the agency was unwilling to take concrete steps to alleviate the problem.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].