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Whistleblowers Are the Lifeline to Scientific Integrity

By Shanna Devine

This Sunshine Week, whistleblowers within the scientific community deserve special recognition. The Trump administration has been relentless with its attacks on scientific integrity, from efforts to censor climate change research and the stonewalling of scientific advisory boards, to the appointment of industry representatives to lead environmental agencies, and attempts to silence the brave employees who challenge government misconduct. Whistleblowers, the eyes and ears to abuses of power that betray the public trust, risk their professional and personal security to shed light on these matters. Regardless of who is in power, we have always relied on courageous civil servants as the lifeline to warn the public about illegal government actions. Several events throughout this week magnified this truth.

Working with Whistleblowers to Safely Blow the Whistle

The 2019 Sunshine Week event Science and Transparency in the Trump Era, organized by several of our allies from the Make It Safe Coalition, was an instructive discussion on the ways in which science and science professionals have been under relentless assault by the current administration, obstructing both the public’s right to know and Congress’s duty to conduct effective oversight. It provided practical tips and resources to help public interest organizations, employees, policymakers and journalists “promote accountability, protect scientific integrity, and restore public trust in government.”

In the spirit of last year’s Sunshine week event that Public Citizen cosponsored, Working with Whistleblowers: A Sunshine Week Training for Public Interest Advocates, the Government Accountability Project provided highlights from updated whistleblower guides, including “Speaking up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees and Contractors,” which provides a roadmap of available whistleblower protections and survival tips for reporting wrongdoing safely and effectively. For instance, the Whistleblower Protection Act – the primary federal whistleblower law that was strengthened unanimously by Congress in 2012 – prohibits retaliation against government scientists who challenge censorship or make disclosures related to the integrity of the scientific process.

This year’s event recognized several scientific truth-tellers spanning several administrations. Joel Clement, a top-level Policy Advisory to the Secretary of the Interior Department, blew the whistle on the dangers of climate change impacts on Alaskan native communities. After resigning from the Trump administration, Clement now works as a Senior Fellow for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Larry Criscione, an engineer and risk analyst with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, disclosed to Congress in 2012 that his agency was failing to heed warnings that nearly a quarter of the nation’s nuclear plants could not withstand an upstream dam break. Clement and Criscione were both recipients of the Joe A. Calloway Award for Civic Courage.

Exposing Toxic Chemicals in the Workplace

During Sunshine Week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee held a hearing on “Mismanaging Chemical Risks: EPA’s Failure to Protect Workers.” The hearing developed a powerful record on how the EPA is systematically ignoring worker risks in its implementation of the 2016 Frank. R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which provided much needed updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) but is not being applied effectively. Witnesses detailed the ways in which their employers knowingly exposed them and other workers to dangerous chemicals and known carcinogens – from asbestos to chlorinated solvents, flame retardants and pesticides – while misleading them about the associated health risks, and the EPA’s failure to use its newfound authority under TSCA to protect workers and others.

Public Citizen submitted written testimony that examines worker health impacts from exposure to the chemical dispersant Corexit used during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster response. A whistleblower investigation exposed that when this product is mixed with oil, a deadly synergy occurs that poses greater threats than oil alone. The only so-­‐called advantage of Corexit is the false impression that the oil disappears – in reality, the more toxic chemical mixture spreads throughout the environment, exposing workers and communities, or settles on the seafloor.

The whistleblowers involved in the dispersant investigation provided clear warnings and practical solutions that could have greatly reduced the negative impact caused by the disaster “clean-up” from the toxic dispersant brew. They began by warning not to treat chemicals with chemicals, a premise that was ignored. As we approach the 9th anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the Trump administration has aggressively worked to expand offshore drilling while simultaneously rolling back related safety regulations. It is both unfortunate and inevitable that future major offshore oil disasters will occur, triggering bipartisan opposition to the current efforts to expand of offshore drilling. Congress should be equally alarmed about the continued use of dispersants. This hearing began to lay the groundwork needed to end the use of Corexit and other dangerous chemicals.

Just as we cannot afford to take clean air, lifesaving medicines and safe workplaces for granted, we must honor the whistleblowers who take great personal risks to uphold scientific integrity. We thank these brave individuals for pulling back the curtain and shining light on dangerous practices.