Scientists Decry ‘Atmosphere of Fear’ at EPA

Published September 1, 1999

The misuse of science at the Environmental Protection Agency has gone from the “chronic to the acute,” according to David Lewis, a 28-year veteran of EPA.

Lewis told an overflow crowd at a July 20 Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the Lexington Institute that at EPA political considerations weigh more than scientific evidence. He added that scientists who question agency decisions on scientific grounds “are viewed as adversaries,” creating an “atmosphere of fear at EPA.”

His 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. As a result of the widely-held view in the scientific community that EPA managers regularly ignore science in formulating and implementing agency policies, scientists at EPA “have become a joke,” he said.

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 apiece, even giving Lewis a letter of apology.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who is expected to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee upon the retirement of Chairman John Chafee late next year, expressed dismay over the treatment of scientists at EPA. Inhofe acknowledged that EPA scientists had come to him complaining about their treatment by the agency, telling the conference he would hold hearings on the situation at EPA in the near future.

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 these laws exist, he explained. Kohn told the audience that EPA whistleblowers are routinely bad-mouthed — publicly and privately — by superiors. In one recent case involving EPA’s harassment of one of its scientists, a judge ordered EPA to train its managers on how to deal with whistleblowers under the law. According to Kohn, however, 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 at EPA, the conference attendees were told. Examples cited by the speakers were:

  • 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 combatting fictitious threats resulting from the purification of drinking water.
  • EPA’s disregard for science in proposing and promulgating new standards for ground-level ozone (smog) and particulate matter. Sen. Inhofe described EPA’s handling of the air quality standards (since thrown out by a federal appeals court) as “most offensive.”
  • 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 are EPA employees as well as current and former state environmental officials who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Data access was another hot topic covered at the conference. Last year, Congress passed a law, later signed by the president, granting public access under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to data derived from studies funded by federal grants. The law, known as the Shelby amendment (named after Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby), is currently under attack by some members of Congress and, indirectly, by EPA.

Michael Gough, a scientist who spent many years in government, told the conference that “science works best when it’s open to skepticism, review, and attempts at replication.” Gough noted that EPA based its new standards on particulate matter in part on data contained in a study conducted under the auspices of the American Cancer Society (ACS). Attempts by Congress and other interested parties to obtain the data in the study were rebuffed with the argument that the data base was proprietary with the ACS. It was later revealed that no one at EPA had seen the data. “I question whether billions of dollars in regulatory costs should be heaped on American industry, cities, and consumers on the basis of data that have not been examined by the regulatory agency,” Gough said.

Becky Norton Dunlop, former director of Department of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia (1994-1998), 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 EPA for frequently seeing state environmental agencies as competitors. When disputes arise between EPA and the states, she noted, Carol Browner’s 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 that the federal government close down temporarily to avoid further 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 follow a state government’s lead and take concrete measures to alleviate a real problem.

EPA enforcement practices were the subject of remarks presented by James DeLong, vice president and general counsel of the National Legal Center for the Public Interest. DeLong pointed out that EPA interprets environmental laws and regulations through its enforcement office instead of its offices of air or water. “EPA,” he said, “has no interest in environmental actions outside its enforcement office.” Rather than having an environmental enforcement system in which the penalties are roughly commensurate with the violations, decisions on such matters are frequently arbitrary, he said. “If you offend the agency, you are likely to end up in jail,” DeLong observed. At EPA, enforcement officials often can’t resist the temptation to “bean” violators — that is, rack up as many sentences as possible irrespective of the amount of environmental degradation involved.

Addressing the politically sensitive issue of environmental justice, Chris Foreman of the Brookings Institution noted that those pushing the issue are “a group of people engaged in social advocacy who have incorporated environmental themes into their movement.” “That is the game that’s being played here,” he said. By raising the specter of environmentally-induced diseases in minority communities, advocates of environmental justice have wed environmental concerns with civil rights.

As for the legitimacy of such arguments, Foreman said environmental justice “is not a health problem but a political problem.” He dismissed the idea that there is a “cancer alley” stretching along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, pointing out that the number of cancer cases there is no higher than the national average.

Whatever its technical merits, however, environmental justice–by raising the question of environmental equity–“is a powerful political force that makes claims that are intuitively attractive,” he observed. According to Foreman, EPA’s Title VI “interim guidance” on environmental justice issued in February 1998, if left largely unchanged, could affect economic opportunities for minorities in inner cities and may conflict with the agency’s plans to convert Brownfields (mildly contaminated abandoned industrial sites) into productive use.