The Incredible Shrinking Career
Brian Rimar, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, thought his assignment seemed simple enough: Monitor a herd of sheep through the southern Colorado grazing season, then dissect and analyze their livers for possible copper poisoning.
What Rimar didn't know was that the project would take his own career to slaughter.
A year after he began the sheep study at the request of Superfund scientists, Rimar became the subject of a secretive criminal investigation by the Office of Inspector General, the internal investigative arm of the EPA. Over the next two years he would be grilled and badgered by federal agents, yanked off his own study and forced to watch his field samples wither before they got to a lab for testing--all, he thinks, because the initial results of his study weren't what officials wanted to hear.
Thanks to Rimar's case and others, Congress has singled out the EPA for investigation by the General Accounting Office; a report on the agency's treatment of some of its own researchers is due out this month.
And if he appears before a congressional committee later this year, as expected, Rimar, 42, will explain how the agency railroaded his promising future as an ecotoxicologist, contradicted its own mission and mishandled one of the most distressing chapters in the history of Superfund cleanup sites--in this case, Colorado's infamous Summitville mine. Others will testify how the EPA has quashed scientific logic or has shown them the door after they blew the whistle on waste or abuse at the agency. Although the EPA is loaded with some of the country's best scientists, its management practices may be drowning in hazardous waste.
"The way I like to put it," says Sara Jones, a water-quality expert and co-chair of a Summitville citizens' group, "Rio Grande County got the mine and Conejos County got the shaft."
Located 250 miles south of Denver, prosperous Rio Grande County is home to the Summitville mine site, touted as Colorado's worst environmental disaster. Downstream lies Conejos County; with a per capita income of $12,673, it's one of the state's poorest counties. Its farm fields and main river, the Alamosa, had to swallow the mine's toxic runoff. For the moment, the river is dead.
The 1,400-acre Summitville site sits atop a whacked-off mountain towering 11,500 feet above sea level. Gold was mined here as early as the 1870s, but it was a foreign mining company that 120 years later created a catastrophe whose cleanup could cost taxpayers up to $175 million.
Summitville was a chemistry lesson in disaster. In 1985, with the state's permits and blessing, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, Inc. (SCMCI), owned by the Canadian-based Galactic Resources Ltd., began mining for gold using an "open-pit heap-leach" method. More than 10 million tons of ore were dug from deep pits, crushed and piled up to twelve stories high on a lined pad, then sprinkled with a sodium cyanide solution. The liquid percolated down through the heap into a pond below. Gold was then extracted from this cyanide soup. In its six years of operation, SCMCI recovered about eight tons of the precious metal. In early December 1992, the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site.
On December 16, 1992, at the state's request, the EPA moved onto the site and found a pool brimming with cyanide and a variety of metals, ready to gush over the side of the mountain. SCMCI had underestimated the amount of snowfall and overestimated the amount of evaporation at that high altitude; moreover, the heap-leach pad had leaked its lethal brew from the start. The EPA's emergency response saved the day, says Victor Ketellapper, the agency's most recent Summitville project manager.
But the emergency first aid was only the beginning.
In 1994 Summitville was declared a Superfund site. Since then, countless trucks loaded with earth and construction equipment have snaked up the eighteen miles of steep dirt roads in an effort to plug the flow of metal-laden waters from the mountain. Contractors are filling in the vast mining pit, creating a new "topsoil" by mixing lime and compost from local mushroom farms and replanting the area's fragile alpine vegetation. One hundred acres of the site were "reclaimed" last summer, and another 300 are left to go, says Angus Campbell of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is overseeing the reclamation and footing 10 percent of the cleanup bill. The EPA remains responsible for the mine's water-treatment plant, which cleans 1,000 gallons of water per minute at a cost of $2.5 million per year and, the state predicts, could be required to run until the end of time.
EPA attorneys have filed a civil suit to recover the full cost of the cleanup from Robert Friedland, the flamboyant Canadian multimillionaire who is widely considered the driving force behind Galactic's mining at Summitville. Galactic had posted a $4.5 million bond to cover the cost of reclamation, but total costs are expected to be more than 39 times that amount. Other efforts to force money out of Friedland have failed; last year a Canadian court rejected a U.S. Justice Department freeze on $152 million of Friedland's assets and ordered the government to shell out $1 million to cover the mining magnate's court costs.
And now Friedland has filed a $150 million lawsuit against the U.S., two Justice Department attorneys and Denver EPA attorney Nancy Mangone, claiming libel, abuse of the process, injuries to his reputation and other charges. In interviews with the Denver press, Friedland has likewise protested the "villainization" of his name. He was last spotted doing business in Australia and Singapore.
In December, two former mine managers were convicted in the disaster. Their sentence: fines of $20,000 each and six months in an Arizona halfway house. Federal prosecutors, citing a lack of evidence, have decided not to pursue criminal charges against any other individuals in the case.
But Summitville remains a very messy place.
Wightman Fork, named for one of the first men to pan for gold in the area, skirts the northern boundary of the mine site and flows into the Alamosa River about 4.5 miles south, taking with it the mountain's highly acidic runoff. The Alamosa then rolls into the Terrace Reservoir, the main irrigation source for some 45,000 acres of neighboring farmland in the San Luis Valley.
This can be hostile country. More than half the year, powder swirls atop the mountains edging the valley, sometimes creating white-out conditions with zero visibility. Roads drift shut within minutes. Thick banks of snow quiver on slopes, poised to avalanche.
But even at high altitudes, the Alamosa River in winter is a non-threatening stream, wending through snow paths tinged with a rusty-colored crust. It's in spring and summer that the river gains its sometimes torrential might. Only a decade ago it was rich with trout and, in essence, served as the area's community recreation center--for swimming, tubing, picnicking.
Today farmers continue to irrigate their crops with river water containing heightened levels of metals, which poses no danger to human health but could have a long-term effect on the productivity of the soil. (See sidebar, below.) Livestock and wild Rocky Mountain sheep graze the riverbanks and the broad, scrubby plains along the Alamosa.
It was here that Brian Rimar began his fieldwork for the EPA.
Rimar had already worked for the agency for five years, monitoring landfill regulations in Region VIII, which covers Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming and is headquartered in downtown Denver. Raised in Buffalo, New York, Rimar has a master's degree in geography with an emphasis in wetlands ecology. During a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, he helped set up a 50,000-acre wildlife refuge for jaguars, monkeys, rare birds and other species in eastern Guatemala.
At the EPA, Rimar was developing a reputation for good work and sound science, as well as a keen interest in ecotoxicology, the study of contaminants in the environment. In 1995 he was invited to become the technical coordinator for a sheep study in the Alamosa River valley, home to many ranchers. Residents there were pressing for an investigation into whether elevated levels of copper in the soil could affect sheep, which are highly sensitive to the metal. (The study was also designed to include ducks, but Rimar's crew would find no nesting ducks on the Alamosa--probably because the dead river has no waterbugs, which constitute 90 percent of the birds' diet.)
Soon after Rimar signed on to the study, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program in ecology--intending to specialize in ecotoxicology--at Colorado State University. The EPA agreed to pay for his coursework, as it frequently does for staffers hoping to develop a scientific expertise that could further the agency's work. Rimar also hoped his experience on the sheep study might pay off when it came time to do his dissertation, though that was still a long way down the academic road.
After a number of funding delays, in late June 1995 Rimar headed down to the valley with a truckload of four-month-old lambs and a small crew hired by CSU, the contractor previously chosen to carry out the study and lab analysis at a price tag of $300,000. The lambs would graze along the river for 120 days; a control group would remain north of the valley in an area unaffected by the Alamosa.
The crew also cut into the earth with augers to pull out soil samples (sheep eat a lot of dirt). With stainless-steel clippers flush to the ground--imitating the way sheep uproot their dinner--the workers cut clumps of grasses, weeds and clover and bagged them for analysis in a CSU lab. By summer's end, the lambs would be rounded up and sent to the university teaching hospital for eventual autopsy. Researchers analyzed tissue from all over the lambs' bodies, but especially their livers, which tend to "rust away" if the animals eat too much copper.
The study was complete by January 1996--and the results were alarming. "What we finally found was that at the exposed site, the amount of copper in the forage plants was 27 times greater than at our control site," says Rimar. The livers of sheep in the exposed area held twice as much copper than those from the uncontaminated site--a concentration that could have been toxic.
"The question was, why weren't the sheep dropping dead in the field?" Rimar asks. "The answer is, we don't know. We needed to do further study. It was very clear. These levels were very dangerous--at least to the ranching industry down there. I'm not saying they were dangerous to human health." Tests found the lambs' meat, as well as crops such as alfalfa and barley, perfectly safe. "The problem was in forage vegetation that the sheep eat," Rimar says. "These results were all hot."
The logical thing would have been to follow the 1995 study with a similar one the next year, says Rimar, who had put in eighty-hour weeks during the fieldwork. Only "time-series data," collected over a multi-year period, would show whether the high copper levels would affect sheep reproduction and a new generation of offspring.
But in early 1996, "rumors and innuendo" started circulating in the hallways at EPA. One evening a colleague phoned Rimar in tears and said she'd been "badgered" during aggressive questioning by OIG investigators who told her Rimar might be bound for jail. Rimar was under criminal investigation for "ethics violations" and had no idea why. "All I could do was guess what the charges were," he says.
Many of Rimar's former colleagues agree that the OIG investigation seemed overzealous. They say they don't know why his work might have been threatening to the EPA. Rimar, however, speculates that his copper study might have endangered state efforts to lower water-quality standards on the Alamosa River, and his insistence on further study called attention to problems with the cleanup.
The United States Office of Inspector General was created during the Carter administration to investigate waste, fraud and abuse at federal agencies. Historically, its jurisdiction has included trying to protect whistleblowers who were being punished for exposing scandals in their agency.
"Whistleblowing is a tool of last resort," explains Bruce Pederson, a Denver attorney who specializes in defending whistleblowers and who later took that role in Rimar's case. "It's a symptom that the patient--in this case, the agency--is seriously ill." Often, whistleblowers are regarded as tattletales or snitches: "Some people think of the term 'whistleblower' as derogatory," says Pederson. "I consider it a badge of honor, myself.
"Unfortunately, in practice, what has happened at the EPA and other agencies is, the IG [Inspector General] is used by the head of the department or agency to punish the whistleblower," Pederson says. "In other words, a trumped-up charge will be created against the whistleblower and given to the IG, who then dutifully investigates it, puts a black cloud over the employee and, if they're lucky, finds something they can nail the employee with, thereby eradicating his credibility as a whistleblower."
In April 1996, Rimar, who at this point was not yet an official whistleblower, contacted the OIG and demanded to meet with Lee Quintyne and Craig Clinton, the two investigators flown in from Atlanta and Chicago to peer into the anonymous charges against him. Rimar would later learn the basis of their investigation: his graduate work at CSU.
Although Rimar's job on the sheep study had been to conduct fieldwork and crunch the numbers on lab results, he had no power over spending money or hiring the CSU contractors for the project. But the OIG claimed Rimar had used the sheep study as a way to weasel into his Ph.D. program. As Max Dodson, head of Superfund for Region VIII, put it in an ominous 1997 disciplinary "letter of warning" to Rimar: "The appearance of a conflict of interest occurred as a result of you appearing to have overall EPA responsibility for the risk assessment.
"Future discipline," Dodson continued, "could be severe."
"Right after [Rimar] began to come up with troubling scientific findings--boom--a charge was filed against him anonymously that he had engaged in a conflict of interest," Pederson explains. "And later, when they couldn't prove that, they investigated him for the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is the biggest catch-all you could ever hope to use."
Rimar vehemently insisted his graduate work had been okayed by the entire EPA chain of command. In June 1996, when the follow-up fieldwork on his 1995 sheep study was to begin, Rimar was booted off the project. He was reinstated in August--too late to begin the seasonal work.
The same thing happened in 1997: Rimar was removed from the sheep study in June. He responded by shooting off an official "whistleblower memo" to the head of the EPA, administrator Carol Browner, and Acting Inspector General Nikki Tinsley. Claiming whistleblower protection under federal law, Rimar outlined how the OIG's "unfounded 'ethics investigation'" had halted his Summitville work--a study that had "resulted in excellent science" for less than a third of the $1 million a private contractor would have charged. Rimar also noted that without 1996 and 1997 numbers, his original 1995 data was now practically worthless and charged that despite $100 million poured into the overall Summitville cleanup, "adequate risk data does not currently exist."
"I wrote thinking, of course, that I'd get some kind of reaction from them," Rimar says. When Browner and Tinsley didn't respond, he tipped off National Public Radio and the local daily newspapers. After the resulting press coverage, EPA put him back on the study.
By now it was August--but Rimar went out into the field anyway to collect soil and plant samples. The soonest he could actually take samples, he says, was in late October--when a fierce snowstorm hit. "We were using brooms to sweep snow off the ground so we could get our samples."
Rimar says he tried to get the soil and plant specimens sent to the CSU lab. Instead, they sat on a shelf at the EPA--despite agency requirements that samples be analyzed within six months to be considered scientifically valid. They were finally sent to a lab somewhere in Texas. "So we've got samples that are too old, going off to a lab that I'm not familiar with, to a lab that had nothing to do with the study, and my question for EPA is very simple: 'Why didn't you get them analyzed immediately, and why didn't you send them to CSU?'" Rimar asks.
But Jim Hanley, Summitville's project manager at the time, says the delay was part of a "comedy of errors" that unfortunately occurred after the fieldwork, and the samples were still scientifically reliable. In the investigation of Rimar, "it seemed that everything that could go wrong did," says Hanley. "I think he's a pretty good scientist. He's really into the state of the art as far as biology and physiology and toxicology." But, "he's much more a pure scientist than he is a bureaucrat, I guess." Rimar fell short on some administrative duties because he "probably lost some heart as a result of all the things going on at the time," says Hanley.
When Dodson sent Rimar his official letter of warning in November 1997, Rimar decided it was time to take further action. He contacted the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who referred him to Denver PEER attorney Pederson. Rimar's case was exceptional, Pederson says, because most whistleblowers who file suit have undergone far more blatant abuse, such as being demoted or fired. Rimar's career had been sidetracked, he had put his graduate work on hold, and his reputation was being squandered by the actions of a "rogue agency," the OIG. But Rimar's main outrage, says Pederson, was that the EPA was not doing good science.
"The last thing I want is people to think that I'm some sort of a paranoid--like those guys who think the CIA is trying to talk to them through an implant in their head," Rimar says. "I was just a bureaucrat, a scientist who had an excellent career record at EPA, doing my job, doing what I was supposed to do. I never started out trying to stir up any trouble." Before the OIG investigation started, Rimar simply ignored office politics, "because it didn't affect the science. I was interested in what were the contaminants and how were they affecting the species I was interested in. That was it."
When he finally filed a lawsuit against the EPA, he says, "I firmly believed that the agency could do the right thing: move ahead with the studies, exonerate me personally, and we could kiss and make up. I could go back to work, and everything would be fine."
Instead, the matter went to trial and turned bitter. Rimar handed over all his related papers and even paid for a lie detector test. "But we had to fight tooth and nail to get [the EPA and the OIG] to turn over documents," he says. "It was almost like Perry Mason." Several witnesses on the stand testified about documents that the agency had failed to provide to Rimar during discovery, he says. "OIG blatantly withheld statements from EPA employees that were extremely supportive of my case."
One particularly damning memo was from Superfund chief Dodson himself. In his January 1998 internal memo to the OIG, Dodson expressed "concerns" about the agency's investigation of Rimar and noted that a "paucity of evidence" had forced EPA Region VIII officials to dismiss several allegations against the scientist. Dodson referred to "allegations of intimidation from some of [the] interviewees" and the "discarding" of information that would have hurt the EPA's case. Further, he noted that he was "troubled" by the efforts of an OIG agent to "inappropriately influence management, i.e., pressure to take Mr. Rimar off the Summitville Ecological Risk Assessment project."
But the "troubling" OIG investigation was also the EPA's justification for taking him off the study, Rimar says.
After a trial that stretched over a week and a half, just prior to closing arguments, EPA agreed to settle. Rimar won an undisclosed sum and agreed to leave the agency. November 7 was his last day on the job.
EPA refuses to talk about the case. "There is still continuing litigation on that matter," says labor relations officer Donald Brady, "and therefore, it would be inappropriate for us to comment."
In a telephone interview, Dodson also noted that he was legally bound not to discuss details of the case. But, he added, "significantly more individuals" than just him made the decision to take Rimar off the study.
In a highly unusual gesture, EPA attorneys have insisted that Rimar turn back all documents dealing with the OIG investigation. "I have never seen that before in a whistleblower case," says Pederson. After all, "the genie's already out of the bottle." Likewise, the identity of the "informant" who sparked the OIG's investigation is supposed to remain confidential--but court documents reveal him as a middle manager who, after reporting Rimar, abruptly took a medical retirement from the agency.
"What I don't understand is sacrificing the people who work for you," says Rimar. "What if I had not fought these charges? I don't know what kind of person would use this information to tear down my reputation ten or twenty years from now."
Later this month Rimar will ask the U.S. Department of Justice to join the fray in his whistleblower complaint. He points to court testimony that he says is proof that Dodson, Quintyne and the "informant" committed perjury and other crimes in the case. "The big question is, why engage in almost three years of lying, covering up, withholding of evidence, possible perjury, possible witness-tampering, possible obstruction of justice?" he asks. "Why would an agency actively engage in those things for such a long time? I can't help but think it's something very serious. I don't think they would be going through all this just because they don't like me."
Throughout the ordeal, the EPA "lost two years of valuable research," Rimar says. "I know there's politics, I know there's give and take, I know there's compromise. That's totally understandable. But there's a huge gap between recognizing the scientific reality and compromising with that, and trying to silence scientific reality and persecuting those people who are trying to tell the truth."
"What happened in Brian's situation is fairly widespread. The thing is, not many people fight it," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER. In the government workplace, subtle things can happen that push scientists off their career paths--like being left off memos or not invited to conferences. "It may sound petty, but if you're a scientist in a particular field, it's the difference between being a star and being mediocre," says Ruch. "We call it 'death of a thousand paper cuts.'"
David Lewis's experience was not so subtle. The respected Atlanta microbiologist and nearly thirty-year employee of the EPA has become one of the agency's most vocal critics.
Lewis, who is now embroiled in his third lawsuit against his employer, charges the EPA with "an insidious problem where science takes a backseat to politics. It's not a new situation," he says. In fact, a 1996 survey of the EPA's Office of Research and Development noted that a "major source of frustration [and insecurity] to ORD employees is that the research direction and even the very existence of ORD is determined by politics."
The EPA was likewise skewered in a May 1998 report by the right-leaning National Wilderness Institute, which accused the agency of "corrupting agency ethics rules to silence whistleblowers," among other charges.
"EPA should be the one setting the example of encouraging whistleblowing," says Lewis's Washington attorney, Stephen Kohn. "Instead, they're the worst offender." The EPA is more often charged with violating its own policies than any private company or other government agency, says Kohn.
Despite environmentalists' initial elation when the outwardly green Al Gore became vice president, "the brain drain at EPA has accelerated in the Clinton administration," Lewis says. "That is the inevitable outcome when an agency deigns to disregard the expert opinion of its own scientists."
The rising persecution of EPA whistleblowers started in 1993, says Lewis, when Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan) put pressure on the EPA's OIG to more aggressively prosecute unethical and criminal behavior within the agency. Lewis experienced the whistleblower's fate firsthand after he eulogized the demise of sound science at the EPA in a June 1996 commentary in the journal Nature. Two years later the conservative Washington Times published a letter signed by Lewis, Rimar and eleven other scientists charging the EPA with harassing and intimidating whistleblowers. The letter spurred U.S. House science committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) to request a full investigation by the General Accounting Office.
If the GAO report--whose conclusions remain secret until its release later this month--sparks congressional hearings, Rimar plans to travel to D.C. to tell his story. His testimony might include what he was thinking during the OIG investigation: "This is Kafka, this is star chamber, this is the old Soviet Union. This is not the United States of America.
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