The Unsung Heroes of Earth Day: Environmental Whistleblowers

Environmental Whistleblowers

3D render of Planet Earth with clouds cover.Earth map and clouds map from http://visibleearth.nasa.gov

April 22 is Earth Day, a day to promote environmental legislation and raise awareness of environmental issues. This annual commemoration was created in 1970 by Senator Gaylor Nelson, who wanted to implement environmental protection regulations.

Whistleblowers play a vital role in protecting the Earth by exposing violations of environmental laws. Every year, brave individuals risk their careers to bring light to misconduct that threatens our planet. On Earth Day, it is important to celebrate these whistleblowers.

A number of major U.S. environmental protection laws include whistleblower provisions to protect and, in some cases, reward individuals who blow the whistle on violations. These range from laws governing ship pollution to nuclear waste. Recently, whistleblower advocates have pointed to the whistleblower provisions of wildlife trafficking laws as underutilized tools in the fight against the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trafficking industry. Additionally, the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) has launched a campaign to fight climate change by empowering whistleblowers to expose fraud in the fossil fuel industry.

Fully utilizing current environmental whistleblower laws, as well as passing updated whistleblower legislation, would ensure that individuals who blow the whistle on environmental crimes are protected and justly rewarded. Whistleblowers already play a central role in protecting the Earth, and they should be able to continue to continue fighting for what’s right for our planet.

Recent Environmental Whistleblower Stories 

On April 21, it was announced that Fishrot whistleblower Jóhannes Stefánsson will receive the 2021 WIN WIN Gothenburg Sustainability Award. Stefánsson risked his life to single-handedly expose one of the largest illegal fishing scandals in history. The Gothenburg Award recognizes significant contributions by people around the world who work to improve ecological, environmental and social conditions. “We came to the conclusion that there is one big barrier to sustainable development – and that is corruption. And we realize the enormous importance of whistleblowers,” said Emma Dalväg, chairperson of the award’s jury.

In March, WNN reported on the story of Walter Loewen, an environmental analyst with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who blew the whistle on the Converse County, Wyoming oil and gas project and is facing termination. According to nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Loewen “repeatedly stressed to the BLM’s leadership” that the project would put in danger the nesting sites of several species of birds. However, after he blew the whistle, he “was removed from all further environmental work on that or any other projects and sidelined” into doing essentially busywork tasks, according to PEER. As of publishing this article, Loewen is still assigned to these projects, but his disclosures have raised awareness about the alleged issues involved in the oil and gas project. 

In April, WNN published an article about employees of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment who alleged that the department was urging them to ignore air quality standards while reviewing and issuing permits. The group of employees sent a letter to the EPA through PEER urging the EPA Inspector General to review the employees’ allegations of misconduct. Like the aforementioned whistleblowers, this courageous group of employees is bringing these environmental issues to the forefront. 

Wildlife Trafficking Whistleblowing

Major wildlife trafficking laws such as the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act contain provisions offering rewards to whistleblowers. However, these reward laws have been severely underutilized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

 In early February 2021, WNN published FWS’ rules and regulations on whistleblower awards for the first time. The documents were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that WNN filed to learn if FWS “amended their whistleblower reward regulations in response to a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.” 

WNN found that FWS agreed to the recommendations in the GAO report, but these revisions were “nullified because their regulations remained undisclosed. Scott Hajost, Chairman of Thinking Animals United and Senior Wildlife Policy Advisor at NWC, stated that “these whistleblower regulations are a very important tool in the toolbox” in terms of fighting illegal wildlife trafficking. 

FWS’ whistleblower rules and regulations that WNN obtained can be viewed here. Additionally, whistleblower lawyer Stephen M. Kohn of Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto did an in-depth analysis of FWS’ rules, which can be found here.

In March, Bonnie Wyper, founder and president of Thinking Animals United, wrote about how wildlife whistleblower programs with incentives for reporting crime would help combat wildlife crime. “[W]histleblowers have a significant role to play in ending natural resource crime including wildlife and forest crime, if empowered to do so,” Wyper wrote. She advocated for wildlife whistleblower programs to “be integrated into the implementation” of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #16, which aims to “[p]romote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.” 

On World Wildlife Day 2021, WNN urged Congress to reintroduce the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act in the current session. This bipartisan bill was introduced in 2019 to the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. John Garamendi (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK). The bill “would empower whistleblowers to report information about wildlife crime and strengthen the enforcement capacity of U.S. agents,” according to prior WNN reporting. 

In September 2020, WNN interviewed Rep. Young about the bill, who described whistleblowers as “our eyes and ears on the ground” and “invaluable partners in the fight against illegal hunting and fishing.” Along with offering whistleblowers monetary incentives and guaranteeing anonymity for whistleblowers, the Act would make “wildlife violations and trafficking offenses prosecutable under RICO organized crime statutes.” Additionally, the Act would allow “U.S. agents to identify traffickers and report them to local authorities,” extending protections for wildlife around the globe. 

Climate Change Whistleblowing

Environmental crimes accelerating climate change is one of the most important things individuals can blow the whistle on. NWC has specifically targeted corruption in the fossil fuel industry as an area where whistleblowers can play a key role in combating climate change.

In July, NWC released a special report entitled Exposing a Ticking Time Bomb: How Fossil Fuel Industry Fraud is Setting Us Up for a Financial Implosion – and What Whistleblowers Can Do About It. The report details how fossil fuel companies have consistently downplayed and concealed the risks climate change poses to their financial condition and to the economy at large. Because of fossil fuel companies’ tight integration with the financial system as a whole, the report warns that “the potential for rapid asset deflation at large fossil fuel companies is a ticking time bomb that, if not detected and addressed, could make the global financial system implode.”

The NWC report also outlines the key role whistleblowers can—and should—play in fighting climate risk fraud. Withholding information and downplaying risks to investors are prosecutable offenses of securities laws. The SEC Whistleblower Program is a highly successful program with strong incentives (monetary awards) and protections (including anonymity) for whistleblowers. According to the report, whistleblowers are in a unique and essential position to uncover fraud, and they can play a leading role in transforming the fossil fuel industry, like they did in the tobacco, healthcare, and banking sectors. The report points to Bradley Birkenfeld, UBS bank whistleblower, as a prime example of the transformative role whistleblowers can play.

“Although improvements to climate risk disclosure rules and whistleblower laws are needed in the U.S. and around the world, the existing U.S. whistleblower legal regime offers great promise for producing near-term results in the battle against climate risk fraud by fossil fuel companies,” the report states.

In a promising step forward, on April 15 Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Sean Casten (D-IL) introduced the Climate Risk Disclosure Act of 2021, which requires publicly traded companies to make more disclosures about their exposure to climate-related risks. NWC endorses the bill and believes that whistleblowers would play a key role in enforcing climate risk disclosure requirements.

Conclusion

Whistleblowers like Stefánsson and Loewen demonstrate the massive impact whistleblowers can have in the fight to protect the Earth. Whistleblowers in both the private and public spheres expose corruption, misconduct, and abuse that damages our planet. This Earth Day, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate their bravery.

It is also essential that Congress and federal agencies in the United States, as well as lawmakers across the world, recognize the key role whistleblowers can and should play in efforts to enforce environmental laws. 

Read more news about environmental whistleblowers here

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