Whistleblowers Reveal Culture of Retaliation at EPA

Published July 1, 1999

David Lewis, a world-renowned microbiologist who spent almost three decades at the Environmental Protection Agency, became so concerned about the misuse of science at the agency that he wrote letters to Vice President Al Gore and EPA Administrator Carol Browner alerting them to the deteriorating situation. When he got no response, Lewis went public with an article in the prestigious British journal, Nature, in which he warned that science at EPA had reached a “state of crisis.”

EPA responded to Lewis’ claims by accusing him of ethics violations. The charges were later dismissed by a Department of Labor mediation board. Lewis filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency and, in a settlement, was awarded $115,000.

Other EPA whistleblowers report similar treatment by the agency. In late March, Lewis was joined by two colleagues, Brian Rimar and Arnie Grigsby, at a Washing press conference where the three blasted EPA for putting politics before science in carrying out its policies. For calling attention to poor science at the agency, all three whistleblowers have been forced out of EPA.

Rimar was a scientist with EPA’s regional office in Denver, assigned by his superiors to study the effects of a cleanup proposal at a Superfund site in Colorado. When Rimar concluded that EPA’s plan would endanger livestock at a nearby Hispanic community, he found himself the object of retaliation by higher-ups and was driven from the agency. Rimar settled with EPA for $100,000.

Grigsby, an environmental specialist at the Denver office, also felt the wrath of EPA managers. He was asked to sign documents approving the transfer of federal funds to various state environmental projects. Grigsby concluded, however, that some of the projects lacked a sound scientific foundation, while others appeared to involve the illegal use of federal funds. When Grigsby, who is black, refused to sign off on the projects, he was subjected to a barrage of racial of slurs by a supervisor and, like Rimar and Lewis, was driven from the agency. He settled for $50,000.

These are not isolated cases. According to attorneys familiar with the claims against EPA, at any given time the agency is involved in scores of lawsuits with its own employees. EPA employees who report wrongdoing or refuse to carry out instructions they believe are illegal or unethical are frequently subjected to the kind of harassment that befell Lewis, Rimar, and Grigsby.

Attorney Stephen Kohn, president of the Washington-based National Whistleblowers Center, says EPA’s arsenal of weapons includes “threats to demote or transfer employees, baseless criminal investigations, and trumped-up charges of ethics violations–all aimed at ostracizing, intimidating, and–ultimately–silencing those who speak out.”

Determined to see EPA brought to justice for such conduct, Lewis, Rimar, and Grigsby have given the FBI documents relating to their cases and have requested a formal investigation into EPA’s practices.

The plight of the EPA whistleblowers, and the misuse of science and taxpayer funds by the agency, are attracting attention on Capitol Hill. According to Congressional sources, hearings may be underway in a few weeks.

More Trouble for EPA

The whisteblowers represent just one of several attacks EPA has suffered in the past several weeks. Together, the events raise serious questions about how EPA treats the public, its own employees, and even the environment.

  • In late March, EPA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) issued a report highly critical of the way the agency had awarded grants to a Maryland-based nonprofit organization, the Center for Chesapeake Communities. After finding that the agency had violated standard government contracting procedures, the IG recommended that EPA cease funding the group.
  • The IG’s findings came on the heels of a report by the Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste, which documented widespread abuse in EPA’s grants program, including funneling funds to groups known to be sympathetic to the agency’s regulatory agenda.
  • Armed with the IG’s report, Missouri Senator Kit Bond, chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, sent a tersely worded letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner demanding that she “clean up this mess” in EPA’s grants program.
  • On May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned EPA’s new air quality standards for ground-level ozone (smog) and particulate matter. The court said EPA had failed to explain how it chose its new smog standard and had not provided convincing arguments for the supposed health benefits of its particulate matter standard. Even more troubling for EPA, the court raised the Constitutional question of whether Congress, in writing the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, had improperly delegated lawmaking authority to EPA.

The appellate court’s decision, together with the revelations of fraud, waste, and abuse in EPA’s grants program, served to underscore the whistleblowers’ fundamental complaint: that EPA has become so politicized it has difficulty carrying out its mission.