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USGS Whistleblower Alleges Poor Lab Conditions, Water Pollution

Feb. 25, 2020, 10:08 PM

A U.S. Geological Survey lab in Seattle leached pathogen-laced wastewater into a Seattle wetland, possibly endangering salmon and trout, and has attempted to fire an employee who blew the whistle on the lab, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The USGS said it implemented an improvement program at the lab and has taken steps to prevent future contamination in its effluent. The agency denied that the contamination endangered any fish.

The whistleblower, USGS microbiologist Eveline Emmenegger, is alleging that the Seattle-based Western Fisheries Research Center maintains its animal containment biosafety laboratories poorly and released exotic and invasive viruses into the wetland in 2017 and 2018.

The center, operated by the USGS in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle, studies environmental factors affecting aquatic ecosystems and fish populations in the West, including salmon, trout and char.

Emmenegger is being represented by PEER, a nonprofit made up of local, state, and national government natural resource and environmental professionals that acts as a resource to potential whistleblowers.

Emmenegger, who has worked for USGS for 27 years, disclosed releases of viruses that endangered native fish, poor air quality affecting USGS staff, loss of lab animals due to equipment failures, and fisheries center management failing to report violations of permit conditions to state and federal regulators, according to PEER.

2017 Pathogen Release

The Western Fisheries Research Center, which pumps water from Lake Washington into its lab in part to remove pathogens in the lake water for research, purifies the water with chlorine and then dechlorinates it before returning the water to the lake, WFRC director Jill Rolland said Tuesday.

In 2017, the lab had a chlorination failure, releasing pathogens that were native, or endemic, to the region into the lake, Rolland said.

Lab officials notified the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology, but the agencies didn’t act because they weren’t concerned that the pathogens would have an impact, Rolland said.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to act on the pathogen releases, according to documents obtained by PEER. The department didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Washington State Department of Ecology, which regulates wastewater pollution, was unaware of the contamination, spokeswoman Colleen Keltz said Tuesday.

Jeff Ruch, PEER Pacific director, said no other groups or lawmakers have spoken out about the possible pathogen releases.

Investigation Launched

The USGS launched an investigation of the lab following the 2017 chlorination incident and concerns over the lab’s scientific integrity.

Though no loss of scientific integrity was found, the lab followed six recommendations for improvement, Rolland said.

Some of the measures the lab has taken include: daily monitoring of the lab’s effluent treatment and an emergency system capable of preventing pathogen releases; an improved staff notification system regarding equipment failures; steps to ensure that animal welfare and biosafety at the lab are up to high standards; and a review of the quality of the research conducted during times when contamination occurred at the lab.

“This is a really unique and important lab that provides a lot of research that supports our fisheries in the U.S.” Rolland said. “It’s important to us to be operating under the highest scientific standards.”

Harassment Alleged

PEER alleges that USGS managers harassed Emmenegger and made it more difficult to report problems as a result of her drawing attention to the problems at the labs.

The USGS proposed to fire her in January for poor work performance and poor scientific research quality, according to documents obtained by PEER.

Emmenegger said she is unable to comment because she is still a USGS employee and not authorized to speak to reporters.

Emmenegger is required to respond by the end of the week to the survey’s proposal to fire her before her termination is final.

“Evi Emmenegger is the epitome of a conscientious scientist who refuses to look the other way,” Paula Dinerstein, general counsel for PEER, said in a statement. “Her managers have tried many ways to silence her, without success, and now seek to impose the bureaucratic death penalty.”

USGS spokeswoman Catherine Puckett confirmed that Emmenegger is still employed at USGS, but said that the agency is unable to respond to questions about personnel matters.

Rolland said USGS takes any claim of harassment seriously and responds according to strict regulations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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