Staffers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mishandled a complaint from four whistleblowers, according to a September 30 article from The Intercept. Whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn, who has extensive experience in representing EPA whistleblowers, says the agency has a history of whistleblower retaliation.
The Intercept reports that internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that an official at the EPA shared a whistleblower complaint from four scientists with six staff members at the agency, one of whom was named in the complaint. The documents “also show that within 24 hours EPA officials sent the whistleblowers’ complaint to other staff members who had been named in it.” EPA staff who were named in the complaint then met two days later to discuss the complaint.
In their complaint, the four EPA whistleblowers allege that “managers and career staff” at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention “tampered with the assessments of dozens of chemicals to make them appear safer,” The Intercept wrote in July. According to the article, the whistleblowers, who were responsible for “identifying the potential harms posed by new chemicals,” sent a letter to Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, along with The Intercept. “The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken,” the whistleblowers said in their letter.
The whistleblowers’ allegations garnered Congressional attention soon after their complaints were made public. On August 17, Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO), Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Climate Change sent a letter to Michael Regan, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In their letter, the group of lawmakers asked for more information about the EPA’s chemical review program in light of the whistleblowers’ disclosures.
“The Committee has a longstanding interest in ensuring EPA’s implementation of TSCA is based on sound science,” the lawmakers’ letter reads. “We also firmly believe EPA’s scientific staff must be able to perform their work of protecting human health and the environment free from inappropriate interference and retaliation.” The letter also urged the EPA to write a briefing about the allegations and provide written answers to questions, one of which asks about whistleblower protections at the agency.
EPA’s Handling of the Complaint
The documents The Intercept obtained show that Tim Whitehouse, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), sent the whistleblowers’ complaint to Michael Freedhoff, executive director of the EPA, at 5:54pm on June 28. Freedhoff then forwarded the complaint to six people within ten minutes of receiving Whitehouse’s email, “including Carol Ann Siciliano, who was then the EPA’s deputy science integrity officer; Mark Hartman, deputy director for management of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, which includes the program featured in the complaint; and Tala Henry, deputy director for programs of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, whom the complaint describes as having played a role in approving multiple chemicals that had not been properly assessed.” The Intercept reports that “Siciliano and Hartman were not implicated in the whistleblower complaint.”
Records show that a day later, “Henry asked Siciliano to send the complaint to everyone who was named in it, and Siciliano complied later that day.” Additionally, “[b]y June 30, a meeting of several of the people named in the complaint had been arranged.” In one email, Siciliano mentioned in an email that “she believed the allegations entitled the scientists who submitted them to whistleblower protections and that, under the law, ‘retaliation against whistleblowers is a prohibited personnel practice.’” When one EPA staffer saw the complaint, they wrote that it was “serious shit,” while another staffer wrote, “This is going to be rough.”
“EPA is committed to protecting employee rights, including the important right of all employees to be free from retaliation for whistleblowing,” the agency said in response to The Intercept. “In April 2021, Administrator Regan reaffirmed this commitment by issuing an email to all employees reminding staff of the whistleblower protections available to every federal employee,” the response continued.
The EPA also stated that it is hiring an independent contractor to implement a “workplace climate assessment” in the New Chemicals Division, “which has allowed dozens of new chemicals onto the market since the first whistleblower complaint was filed,” the article states. This assessment “will be expanded to other parts of [the] Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention over the coming months.” EPA said in the statement: “Participation in this effort is completely voluntary and confidentiality of the information and the identity of individuals participating in this assessment will be protected to the greatest extent possible. OCSPP leadership will use the feedback collected through this effort to understand, evaluate, and, if necessary, make changes in OCSPP’s work practices and culture in order to promote collaboration and enhance the science that OCSPP uses in our program decision making.”
The Intercept also reports that Henry, one of the individuals named in the whistleblower complaint, is serving as the “point person” for “an effort to ‘triage’ some of the many scientific integrity complaints within the agency.”
EPA’s Treatment of Whistleblowers
“EPA has a long history of retaliating against whistleblowers,” Kohn told WNN. Kohn has previously represented several EPA whistleblowers. “Many of the agency components are very close to industry and EPA tends to be more of a pollution regulatory agency than an environmental protection agency. They regulate how much pollutants can be placed into the environment, which is often highly politicial, and there are conflicts of interest,” Kohn remarked.
“EPA whistleblowers often have an opportunity to use the more powerful and effective Department of Labor environmental whistleblower laws than the Merit Systems Protection process,” Kohn said more broadly about EPA whistleblowers. He mentioned that key environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Solid Waste Disposal Act “protect federal employees who blow the whistle.” However, Kohn emphasized that “these laws also have a 30 day statute of limitations.”