unraveling the agency ?
by Bonner R. Cohen
WASHINGTON--They're leaking, they're suing, they're going public with their complaints -- and some of them are even getting fired. They are the dissidents at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And whether EPA likes it or not, the dissidents are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Putting Politics Ahead of Science
The recent US Court of Appeals ruling overturning EPA's new standards for smog and soot has cast an unflattering light on how the most powerful regulatory agency in the country goes about its business. By saying in effect that EPA had failed to explain how it arrived at its new standards and how public health would benefit from them, the court simply confirmed what EPA dissidents have been arguing for some time: At EPA, science is regularly sacrificed on the alter of politics, and the agency is more interested in expanding its power than in developing rational approaches to environmental problems. (emphasis added)
If left standing, the court's decision will be a severe setback for an agency that has become accustomed to riding roughshod over science and scientists. Last year, for example, EPA brass overruled the recommendation of its scientists and torpedoed a science-based standard for chloroform in drinking water. The decision, dissidents argue, forces water system operators to waste precious resources combatting fictitious threats resulting from the purification of drinking water.
Buying-off Environmental Groups
What further angers EPA dissidents is the agency's practice of funneling grants to friendly "public interest" groups that can be relied on to support EPA regulatory actions. According to Missouri Senator Kit Bond, chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, EPA has passed out nearly $1 billion to about a thousand such groups over the past five years.
"EPA and its green group allies are deceiving the public by promoting nonexistent environmental problems," says Hugh Wise, an environmental scientist at the agency. As an example of the kind of scare tactics the agency employs, Wise notes that EPA regularly designates certain chemicals as "toxic pollutants" or "hazardous pollutants" but fails to inform the public of a cardinal rule of toxicology: the dose makes the poison. "The mere presence of these chemicals does not convey toxicity," he explains. (Wise's views are his own and do not reflect those of the agency.)
EPA not only misuses science, the agency is not above mistreating its scientists. Microbiologist David Lewis, who has spent nearly three decades at the agency, became so concerned about the misuse of science at EPA that he wrote letters to EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Vice President Al Gore informing them of the situation. When he got no response, Lewis went public with an article in the prestigious British journal, Nature, in which he stated that science at EPA had reached a "state of crisis." EPA retaliated against Lewis by charging him with a series of ethics violations -- all of them later thrown out by a Department of Labor mediation board. Lewis filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency and, in a settlement last year, was awarded $140,000 in damages and legal fees by EPA.
Lewis is no isolated case. Brian Rimar was a scientist with EPA's regional office in Denver. Rimar was asked by his superiors to conduct a study on the effects of a cleanup proposal at a Superfund site in Colorado. But when Rimar concluded that EPA's plan would endanger livestock at a nearby community, he, too, was harassed by superiors before being driven from the agency. EPA settled with Rimar last fall for $100,000.
According to attorneys familiar with the situation, EPA employees who report wrongdoing or refuse to carry out instructions they believe are illegal or unethical are typically subjected to just the kind of retaliation Lewis and Rimar suffered. 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."
In a letter to the Washington Times last year, over a dozen EPA dissidents wrote that they found the situation "so reprehensible that we submit this letter, risking our careers rather than choosing to remain silent." They went on to protest what they said was "fraud or waste in our agency involving hundreds of millions of dollars, and alerting the public that EPA regulations and enforcement actions based on poor science stand to harm rather than protect public health and the environment."
How oppressive has the climate become? The dissidents weren't kidding when they said they were "risking their careers rather than choosing to remain silent." Of the 13 people who signed the letter to the Washington Times, six have since lost their jobs.
EPA "does more harm than good"
While some dissidents go public, others meet quietly with Members of Congress urging them to rein in EPA, including devolving much of the nation's environmental regulatory authority to the states. "EPA bureaucrats are more interested in throwing their weight around then in promoting sensible environmental initiatives, "Lewis says. "The agency does more harm than good."
Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute.