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EPA Whistleblower on Dangers of 9/11 Toxic Dust Reinstated to Job

- Common Dreams staff

A whistleblower in the EPA who had been fired for exposing the dangers of toxic Ground Zero dust in the days after 9/11 was reinstated to her job, with back pay, by a federal court today.(photo via Steve Wilson)

EPA chemist Dr. Cate Jenkins, who had worked for the agency for more than 30 years, was the first official to sound the alarm on the dangers dust posed to firefighters and First Responders. But the EPA head at the time claimed there was no health hazard.

Abrahm Lustgarten reported in 2003 that "for months after the attacks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency insisted that the dust contained few contaminants and posed little health risk to anyone but those caught in the initial plume from the towers’ collapse." Lustgarten wrote that Christine Todd Whitman, then the Bush administration’s EPA chief, told PBS “NewsHour": “Everything we’ve tested for, which includes asbestos, lead, and volatile organic compounds, have been below any level of concern for the general public health.”

Jenkins accused the EPA of deliberately downplaying the risks of exposure to the dust and brought her concerns to Congress.

She was later fired over accusations she, a petite polio survivor, had physically threatened her male, 6-foot tall supervisor.

“What happened to Dr. Jenkins was a crude railroading of a dedicated public servant. It is refreshing to see justice done by her,” stated PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who led Dr. Jenkins’ legal team. “Returning Dr. Jenkins to her position is just a start. We intend to hold responsible officials accountable and ask EPA to look very closely at this case with an eye toward preventing any more travesties like this.”

* * *

Suzanne Goldenberg writing for The Guardian:
EPA scientist who warned of caustic dust from Ground Zero wins job back

A government scientist sacked for exposing the dangers to firefighters from the caustic air at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 got her job back on Monday.

A federal court ordered that Cate Jenkins, a chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency, be reinstated to her job with back pay.

Her lawyer said the decision, although based on matters of legal process, amounted to vindication for Jenkins's claims that the EPA had covered up the danger posed to first responders and others in lower Manhattan from the asbestos and highly corrosive dust that rose from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

It was also a rare victory for whistleblowers, said lawyer Paula Dinerstein. "This doesn't happen that often."

Jenkins, who has spent more than 30 years at the EPA, was the first agency official to warn of the dangers of the caustic dust rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

The dust, which had dangerously high Ph levels, was so corrosive it caused chemical burns to the lungs of firefighters and other rescue teams. Hundreds of workers spent weeks at the scene without protective gear such as respirators.

Subsequent research has shown as many as two-thirds suffered permanent lung damage.

Medical experts now believe much of the health effects could have been prevented if workers were issued proper safety gear.

* * *

PEER: Crusading EPA Scientist Returned to Work — Her Termination Thrown Out due to Constitutional Violations by Agency

Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who raised the alarm about dangers to First Responders and residents at the World Trade Center conflagration has been ordered returned to her job by a federal civil service court, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The decision strengthens key safeguards for all federal whistleblowers.

Dr. Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist with more than three decades of agency tenure, publicly charged that due to falsified EPA standards First Responders waded into dust so corrosive that it caused chemical burns deep within their respiratory system. After raising this issue to the EPA Inspector General, Congress and the FBI, Dr. Jenkins was isolated, harassed and ultimately removed from her position on December 30, 2010 by EPA based upon an un-witnessed claim that the soft-spoken, petite childhood polio survivor threatened her 6-foot male supervisor.

In a ruling dated May 4, 2011, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) unanimously vacated Dr. Jenkins’ termination and ordered she be fully restored by May 25th and awarded back pay with interest. The decision faulted both the EPA and its own administrative judge for serious legal errors, including –

  • Dr. Jenkins’ constitutional right to due process was violated because EPA fired her on an entirely new charge it had not previously even raised;
  • The MSPB judge improperly prevented introduction of evidence for a whistleblower defense; and
  • Dr. Jenkins was improperly blocked from conducting discovery on a number of issues, including the apparent high-level collusion to remove her.

 

“What happened to Dr. Jenkins was a crude railroading of a dedicated public servant. It is refreshing to see justice done by her,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who led Dr. Jenkins’ legal team. “Returning Dr. Jenkins to her position is just a start. We intend to hold responsible officials accountable and ask EPA to look very closely at this case with an eye toward preventing any more travesties like this.”

The holdings in the Jenkins case will help make sure that agency disciplinary decisions are fairly reached. Moreover, the ruling helps prevent agencies from hiding the ball to cover up political machinations.

“This ruling underlines some of the serious procedural defects that have historically made MSPB an assembly line for injustice against whistleblowers,” Dinerstein added, noting that it was same judge who decided against and then was reversed by the full MSPB board which ordered the restorations of U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers in 2011. “Hopefully, this ruling will make the initial decisions by MSPB judges more thoughtful and evenhanded.”

Meanwhile, EPA has not corrected the mistakes it made on 9/11. Last year, PEER on Dr. Jenkins’ behalf filed a formal rule-making petition demanding that EPA dramatically tighten its corrosivity standard so that responders would be alerted to use personal protection equipment to prevent lung respiratory damage. The petition would bring the U.S. into line with standards in force in the European Union, Canada and adopted by the United Nations since at least1970. EPA has yet to respond to the petition.

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