OLYMPIA – Prompted by a Spokane hydrologist’s clash with her bosses at the Department of Ecology, some state lawmakers want to toughen Washington’s whistle-blower law to protect scientists who believe their findings are wrongly suppressed.
“I think we spout a lot of platitudes about how interested we are in open government, in transparency, and being able to shine the light of day on the activities of what’s going on,” state Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said at a recent hearing. “But I think it’s time we stood up and took some action in that way.”
Current law protects state employees who report “improper governmental action” to the state auditor. That means things like grossly wasting money, breaking the law or endangering the public.
Ormsby is the prime sponsor of House Bill 3193, which would add to that list. Among other things, it would offer whistleblower protection to employees whose scientific opinions are squelched or altered without justification. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate.
Proponents cite the case of Drea Traeumer, a hydrologist who quit Ecology last year, saying the agency’s plan to clean up the Spokane River and Long Lake was not “legally or scientifically defensible.”
Traeumer, testifying before lawmakers in Olympia recently, said her superiors, trying to allow continued dumping of wastewater and pollutants into the river, were twisting the science. When she voiced her concerns, she said, she was ignored – and told not to put them in e-mail for fear the information could be used against the agency. On Aug. 31, she quit.
“I’m not the type to deceive the public, which is paying my salary to uphold the law for their river,” Traeumer told lawmakers. She didn’t try to claim whistleblower protection, she said, because she’d never heard of the program.
As for Ecology, “we certainly do have a different perspective,” said deputy director Polly Zehm.
In a written statement to lawmakers, the agency said that bringing the Spokane River into immediate compliance with water quality standards would have meant that no one, including the city of Spokane, could discharge wastewater into the river.
That would be “a huge economic hardship on the community” and taken needed water out of the river, the agency said.
Instead, the agency says, it worked with local government, industry, tribes and the federal Environmental Protection Agency “to develop a realistic, phased approach” that will lead to vast improvements in water quality.
“It’s legal and it will be effective,” the agency said.
Traeumer wasn’t the only staffer to object. According to Ecology, her predecessor on the water plan, Ken Merrill, asked to be reassigned because he disagreed with the agency’s view that the initial proposed restrictions were “clearly not suitable for the complex situation that exists today in the Spokane area” and didn’t address economic worries and population growth. Merrill changed jobs and still works at Ecology.
“Our goal is to clean up the water,” the agency said, adding that the plan will do that.
“I have no interest in suppressing the scientific debate or other debates,” Zehm told lawmakers. “That’s what I think good government is, and I think that’s what the public expects of us, even if it’s messy.”
Among those opposing Ormsby’s bill: the state attorney general’s office, which defends against employee lawsuits. State attorneys are worried about what they say is vague language in the bill – terms like hostile, coercive and demeaning – and say the bill lowers the standard of proof for workers who say they were wrongly retaliated against.
Backers of the change include State Auditor Brian Sonntag and the largest state-worker union, the Washington Federation of State Employees.