Washington, DC — Senior federal officials improperly compromised scientists’ attempts to document pollution damage to aquatic wildlife, according to an internal investigative report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite these findings, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has yet to reverse retaliatory suspensions imposed on the whistleblowing scientists who reported this scientific and managerial misconduct by their own chain-of-command.
The March 15, 2013 report concerns effluent from a pharmaceutical manufacturer (Kelco, Inc.) into Oklahoma’s Deep Fork River, one-half mile upstream of a national wildlife refuge. In September 2011, FWS scientists discovered a mussel kill near the company’s discharge pipe, the site of an even larger mussel kill six years earlier which resulted in a state prosecution and a pollution control consent order. To document whether a new violation had occurred FWS scientists and state officials operating under the national Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) program placed live mussels in monitoring cages at distances of 5, 100 and 150 feet from Kelco’s outflow pipe.
Once Kelco learned of the monitoring cage so close to its waste outlet the company protested to Dixie Porter, supervisor of the FWS Oklahoma Ecological Services field office in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Acting contrary to the advice of her own scientists and the explicit request of state officials, Porter ordered the monitoring cage moved from 5 feet to 30 feet away from the outflow. An internal complaint resulted in an investigation by the FWS Scientific Integrity Officer who found that Porter –
- Committed scientific misconduct by “intentional actions [that] were a significant departure from the acceptable practices of a Field Supervisor in carrying out…NRDAR science responsibilities”;
- Potentially compromised an anti-pollution enforcement investigation. The report also faulted Luke Bell, FWS Branch Chief for Threatened and Endangered Species and Contaminants for “intentional” obstruction of factual communication about the case; and
- Lied that her decision to move the cage was based upon advice of an Interior Department solicitor.
“This case shows that one of the largest impediments facing Fish & Wildlife Service scientists seeking to protect wildlife is their own management,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained the report a year after requesting it under a Freedom of Information Act appeal with Interior’s Office of Solicitor. “The report depicts a political atmosphere inside the Service where it is professionally preferable to sacrifice wildlife rather than stand up to a corporate polluter.”
Porter and Bell were also found guilty of scientific misconduct in a separate matter later that same month. That case involved the adoption of an inaccurate map significantly shrinking the range of an endangered species, the American burying beetle, in the proposed path of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and then rushing a bogus scientific journal article into publication to cover their tracks.
Despite public statements by FWS Director Dan Ashe that Porter and Bell would be punished, Porter still occupies her supervisor position and, for a while, was detailed to a more prestigious region-wide science coordinating position. Meanwhile Bell resigned to work for an oil company. By contrast, three scientists who made or supported the complaints have been subjected to a series of retaliatory suspensions engineered by Porter and upheld by regional officials.
“More than two years since these events and more than a year since these damning findings Dan Ashe still has not lifted a finger to do the right thing,” Ruch added, noting that these are the first two cases of misconduct substantiated under Interior’s new Scientific Integrity process. “These cases point to a gap in the system in that once scientific integrity violations are found no one is charged with fixing them.”