Washington, DC, Feb. 24, 2020 — A federal laboratory has suffered repeated breaches of biosafety, resulting in releases of high-risk aquatic pathogens posing dangers to the environment, as well as equipment failures threatening the health of researchers, and their experimental results, according to documents posted today Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead of addressing the causes of breakdowns, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has made it harder to report problems, harassed the scientist who made reports, and now has moved to fire her.
In its Seattle-based Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC), the USGS operates two animal containment biosafety labs studying numerous pathogens, including dangerous exotic and invasive viruses. Both labs suffer from poor maintenance and monitoring of key equipment. Perhaps the most serious incident involved the release for six months of pathogen-contaminated wastewater into the wetland adjoining one of Seattle’s most popular parks around Lake Washington before it was discovered. Yet, these treatment system failures continued to recur because no decisive corrective measures were taken.
Eveline Emmenegger, a WFRC microbiologist, manages and performs research in the highest biosafety level containment laboratory at the facility. She has worked at WFRC for more than 27 years with excellent job performance ratings until only recently. Now, USGS is proposing to end her federal employment because of alleged issues with “quality” – but not accuracy – of a research paper she prepared for a peer reviewed science journal.
“Evi Emmenegger is the epitome of a conscientious scientist who refuses to look the other way,” stated Paula Dinerstein, General Counsel for PEER, which is representing her in a whistleblower challenge to her proposed removal. “Her managers have tried many ways to silence her, without success, and now seek to impose the bureaucratic death penalty.”
Among the other facility problems Ms. Emmenegger has disclosed are releases of viruses that put endangered native fish, including salmon and trout, at risk; poor air quality impacting personnel; loss of research animals due to equipment failures; and WFRC management not reporting violations of permit conditions to state and federal regulatory authorities, as required. In response, WFRC managers have prevented scientists from reporting biosafety breaches or monitoring critical equipment supporting animal well-being and experiment integrity.
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“Rather than take effective steps to prevent or minimize breaches and breakdowns, the USGS has decided to shoot the messenger,” added Pacific Director Jeff Ruch, noting that, in January, Emmenegger was placed on administrative leave, forbidden to enter the WFRC premises without prior permission, served with a notice of proposed separation, and escorted out of the center under armed guard. “The repeated releases of high-risk viruses and pathogens should be a cause for preventive action rather than retribution.”
Unlike private and state labs, USGS laboratories are not subject to external accreditation. Thus, agency administrators are free to place budgetary and administrative convenience over safety and environmental protection.