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Est. April 5, 2002
October 20, 2016 - Issue 671

In The Case Of Lead Poisoning
Who Is Watching The Watchers?


"The laws that purport to protect whistleblowers
are easily manipulated to show some kind of
criminal behavior on the part of the whistleblower. 
As a result, whistleblowers are reluctant to come
forward, because they fear for their jobs and
the security of their family income."

Even after decades of warnings and mitigation of lead-painted apartments in the older buildings in America’s cities, there is still plenty of lead that is endangering the lives and health of children and pregnant women.

Although generally, the people expect that the government agencies, which are charged with keeping track of such things, will actually do that work and they expect that the watchdogs will do their best to ferret out the danger, stop it, and prevent damage to the public health in the future.

Lead in the water of Flint, Michigan, was not a rare instance, except that in that city, it was known by city officialdom that switching from Detroit as a source of municipal water to the polluted Flint River would be a danger to the people of Flint, especially children. But, lead exists in the environment from thousands of sources and we are informed by various government agencies that every effort is being made to detect and eliminate the sources.

At the end of September, the Office of Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found “criminal handling of official records,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The IG’s office found that records of inspections and reports of violations in housing renovations were dumped, after a whistleblower reported missing documents in the Atlanta Regional Office.

According to PEER, “scores of files from open and closed cases were discovered piled in a recycling bin.” As a result of the investigation, it was found that the office had no system for file management and that, although EPA managers knew about the missing records for more than a year, “no significant effort” was made to locate the missing files or to institute procedures to protect the remaining files.

“This case involves the program meant to close the main pathway through which people, especially children and pregnant women, are exposed to lead: inhaling or ingesting lead-laden paint chips or dust in older housing,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, who obtained the IG report through the Freedom of Information Act. “This report shows EPA again dropping the ball on protecting public health.”

The problem in this case, aside from there having been no discipline for those responsible (the IG noted that one person was “verbally counseled”), the loss of records of closed cases means that repeat offenders, those who continue to allow the release of lead into the environment, will not ever suffer more severe penalties as repeaters, because there are no records of their previous offenses. The loss or destruction of records of ongoing cases impedes further investigation and mitigation of the lead problem and means that time and work efforts are lost in protecting the people from lead.

It is not known why someone in the regional office would think that there was no value in properly keeping records of past enforcement (as if nothing is learned by studying past records of inspection and mitigation), according to PEER. And, even though the IG sent its findings to the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia for what the office termed “prosecutorial consideration,” the best the agency could do was “counsel” one of its workers.

In this age of the politicization of science, there seems to be little doubt that such lax enforcement of the rules, and lack of common sense, is at least partially attributable to the attacks on any kind of “government regulation” that have been relentless in recent years, but especially in the past two decades. There must be a certain level of constant fear by those who head governmental regulatory agencies that they will be attacked, over and over, by members of the Congress and others, in the states and elsewhere. Often, the heads of agencies have been called before congressional committees and grilled about doing their jobs, and this is especially true when they bring up the issue of “damage to business, industry, and the economy in general.”

The members of Congress who call these hearings are usually in league with (or in service to) corporations and their biggest campaign contributors among the very rich. What their efforts have done is to make heads of agencies fearful of doing their jobs with full speed ahead, regardless of the consequences, in their protection of the people and the environment. And, this includes not only the EPA, but most agencies charged with the regulation of Corporate America and individual property owners, as well.

Nothing can excuse the failure to do the work assigned to the agencies, but, to a small degree, it is understandable. Most of the attacks have come from Republicans, big business interests, and the Right Wing, in general, but what makes it difficult for the agencies to do their jobs is the perception that they get little to no support or defense from the Democrats. The agencies are pretty much standing on their own.

Many of these offenses against the people would not come to light, if it were not for organizations like PEER, a group created by public workers in the environmental agencies of the nation, state and federal, who are gagged by governmental rules and regulations and are not free to expose the problems as they see them. They are professionals, trained and educated, and should have a voice in the operations of their agencies, since they are the ones who are doing the actual work.

Whistleblowers in government have not fared too well over the past two decades, so PEER and any other organization that can speak for public workers everywhere are important to the integrity of government regulators. Apparently, the laws that purport to protect whistleblowers are easily manipulated to show some kind of criminal behavior on the part of the whistleblower. As a result, whistleblowers are reluctant to come forward, because they fear for their jobs and the security of their family income. The health and safety of Americans across the country depend on them. Protect them and their right to speak out as whistleblowers, for the good of your family and your community. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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