US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials reportedly exposed whistleblowers who raised corruption allegations after apparently uncovering proof that senior agency staffers had tampered with risk assessments for chemicals.
In June, four EPA scientists reportedly brought allegations of corruption against the agency’s New Chemicals Division and shared detailed evidence that high-level figures had deleted hazard alerts and altered conclusions in several chemical assessments to make them appear safer.
Minutes after receiving one such complaint on June 28, Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), shared the file with six senior colleagues – at least one of whom was named in the complaint, according to records obtained by The Intercept through Freedom of Information requests.
The four whistleblowers are represented by environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which also submitted the complaint to the EPA inspector general’s office and sought an audit to identify the altered risk assessments. A copy was also sent to Representative Ro Khanna (D-California), who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s environment subcommittee.
The scientists also called for a review of cases in which they alleged comments in documents had been erased – and urged the agency to conduct an evaluation of the process “that allowed these improper changes to be made and remain uncorrected.” Among the six people Freedhoff forwarded the document to was OPPT deputy director for programs Tala Henry, who is reportedly described in the complaint as being involved in approving several chemicals that were not properly assessed.
According to The Intercept, the records – which include more than 1,000 pages of internal emails – show that within a day EPA officials had shared the complaint with other employees who had been named in it. Two days later, the named staffers apparently held a Zoom meeting to discuss how to respond – something legal experts told the outlet could compromise the investigation.
“That’s just not the way it’s done. How do we know they weren’t using that meeting to get their stories straight?” Kyla Bennett, PEER’s director of science policy, told The Intercept.
An analogy would be if there’s a murder investigation. You don’t go to all of the people who you think might have done it and give them all the evidence you’ve collected and say, ‘This is what we’re thinking.’
Although PEER and the whistleblowers decided against publicly naming the EPA staff members because “we are not judge and jury,” Bennett had earlier told the outlet that the agency had “released” the whistleblowers’ names – putting them in an “incredibly uncomfortable situation” and giving superiors the “chance to circle the wagons trying to go after them.”
In addition to potential threats of legal action against them by the companies whose chemicals were being assessed, the whistleblowers were reportedly subjected to various forms of harassment – including incidents involving shouting, name-calling, and disparagement of their work in front of colleagues. All four scientists were also reportedly reprimanded for not reviewing new chemicals quickly enough.
In a statement response to The Intercept, which has carried out a months-long investigation into the allegations, the EPA expressed its commitment to “protecting employee rights, including the important right of all employees to be free from retaliation for whistleblowing.”
The agency is apparently conducting a “workplace climate assessment” within the NCD, which has reportedly approved dozens of new chemicals for market release since the first whistleblower complaint was filed.
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