Courageous Whistleblower’s Warnings Validated, But Ignored – Again
Petulant ego of reporters and editors trumps public health and journalistic integrity
“Thanks to the courage and integrity of a DEP specialist speaking out, it is clear that New Jersey has abdicated its responsibility to protect the public from toxic sites,” stated Bill Wolfe, a former long-time DEP analyst. “Unfortunately, federal intervention will be necessary to make sure that this job is done right.” ~~~
Last week, there were deeply moving must read high profile national stories about whistleblowers that caught my eye.
- A Whistleblower’s Horror Story (Rolling Stone, Matt Tiabbi)
- Destroyed by the Espionage Act (The Intercept)
I had planned to write about those issues soon, from personal experience and the perspective of perhaps the most important analysis of the meaning of whistleblowing, from the truly profound book: Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power
But today’s Bergen Record story by Scott Fallon on the Garfield chromium disaster forces my hand and narrows my focus.
I have repeatedly criticized Fallon’s coverage of the Garfield chromium site, so it’s understandable that he would never give me a call or report on PEER’s work.
But Fallon’s petulance and petty ego have caused him to whitewash the story – again and again – as he did today with this totally misleading allusion to the site’s troubled history:
The pollution dates to 1983, when more than 3 tons of hexavalent chromium spilled into the ground from a tank at E.C. Electroplating, a small family-run business. Although only 30 percent of the metal solution had been recovered, the state Department of Environmental Protection allowed E.C. Electroplating’s contractors to suspend their cleanup in 1985 — a move DEP officials acknowledge was a mistake.
Note to Fallon: DEP didn’t make a one time, site specific, “mistake” on chromium in Garfield 30 years ago.
DEP scientists were aware of and had warned about Garfield – and scores of other chromium sites – continuously for YEARS.
Their warnings were ignored by DEP managers and suppressed for political reasons.
That history is scandalous. [*here’s one example, from the NY Times (10/2/06)
The chromium issue caused unusually public recriminations within the environmental agency. After a group convened to reconsider the cleanup standards recommended leaving them unchanged, one member, Zoe Kelman, a chemical engineer, wrote a 50-page dissent.
Several other agency scientists, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said that the Department of Environmental Protection had bent to political pressure to speed cleanups.
Ms. Kelman accused the agency of disregarding tests at one capped site, in Kearny, that found hexavalent chromium levels thousands of times higher than the agency plan had expected.
She also noted that while New Jersey sets the allowable level of hexavalent chromium in soil at 240 parts per million, Maryland’s standard is 30 parts per million, and Oregon’s is 23.
“I always feel the public believes we err on the side of protection, and it’s obvious now that we don’t,” Ms. Kelman said.
But that’s not all – here’s Propublica:
A 2004 investigation by the Newark Star-Ledger found that Honeywell Inc., PPG Industries and Maxus Energy Corporation, the companies responsible for the chromium pollution, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying and millions of dollars on their own scientific studies to convince the state of New Jersey that its chromium standard was too stringent.
According to the investigation, when the lobbying effort began, New Jersey considered chromium levels in soil at 10 parts per million to be safe; by the end of the companies’ lobbying campaign the chromium standard was raised to 6,100 parts per million: one of the loosest standards in the country, allowing the companies to save millions on cleanup costs.
Despite what Mr. Fallon writes – and he must know this history – DEP’s failure is not limited to Garfield and it persisted for decades. It is unconscionable for Fallon to ignore all this, and basically give DEP credit for acknowledging their error.
After years of being ignored, marginalized, or told to just sit down and shut up, finally, one DEP employee had the courage and integrity to blow the whistle, almost 10 years ago now.
And Zoe Kelman’s warnings were directly relevant to the Garfield chromium site.
One key Kelman warning that is directly relevant to Garfield was this – risks from toxic chromium migration into building basements:
The 1998 criteria do not protect groundwater and surface water from chromium contamination. The leaching of chromium from soils into groundwater is a natural resource injury in and of itself. But it can also create a public health hazard; groundwater is a vector for the transport of hexavalent chromium and the contamination of additional soils and structures. Leachate evaporation at interfaces results in localized accumulations of highly enriched solid-phase hexavalent chromium on soil, building or other surfaces. The final report of the workgroup ignores the issue altogether; it proposes no soil standard to protect against leaching to groundwater.
Had PEER and Ms. Kelman’s warnings been taken seriously and given media attention by outlets like the Bergen Record, then perhaps unsafe exposures to chromium would have been averted 10 years sooner.
Maybe if EPA were paying attention, they would have taken the PEER November 5, 2005 letter petition requesting federal intervention seriously. We demanded:
- V) Request for USEPA intervention
Based upon documented unacceptable risks and a longstanding and continuing pattern of failure by the NJDEP, we request that EPA:
- assume federal jurisdiction and control of the remedial process at certain chromium sites pursuant to CERCLA, RCRA, and the Clean Water Act;
- conduct necessary and appropriate CERCLA emergency removal actions to control chromium exposures;
- notify and warn the public of these unacceptable risks and provide assistance in community response to chromium remediation;
- refer the matter to EPA and Department of Justice for appropriate criminal and civil enforcement action;
- refer NJDEP’s handling of the chromium matter to the EPA Inspector General for investigation;
- request that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conduct a community health study and impact assessment of chromium contamination; and
- conduct site assessments and initiate the NPL listing process for certain chromium sites.
Amazingly, we have been vindicated. Virtually each and every one of these specific demands ultimately happened, but far too late.
After ignoring our 2005 warnings, EPA, Scott Fallon, and the rest of the NJ media had an opportunity to redeem themselves when I rehashed all this back in 2010, with this repeat warning post:
But now, they prefer to prance around and portray themselves as some kind of aggressive investigative watchdogs, writing crap like Fallon’s piece today, which whitewashed the fact that they - just like DEP – ignored huge health risks to residents and abdicated their responsibility for many years.
And in the meantime, heroic whistleblower’s careers have been destroyed as State officials retaliated for their honest and accurate warnings to the public.
And those state officials have not been held accountable – in a court of law or the court of public opinion.
And many other frustrated professionals, disgusted by political intervention in DEP science and regulatory decisions, are dissuaded from blowing the whistle, when they see the brave work of one of their colleagues ignored and their career destroyed.
Believe me, when the media and EPA ignore whistleblowers, that is exactly what the powerful corporations and political hacks that run DEP want.
And in the meantime, people are needlessly exposed to risks and the quality of their health and the environment are compromised.
This, dear readers, is the price of petulance and ego of a third rate reporter and his editors.