Corps Biologist Faces 30-Day Suspension for Kayaking L.A. River
Off-Duty Challenge to Ruling River Was Not Navigable “Undermined Authority”
Washington, DC — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is threatening major disciplinary action against one of its own scientists because she kayaked the Los Angeles River one weekend as part of a protest against the agency refusal to declare the entire river navigable in fact, thus failing to protect much of the watershed under the Clean Water Act, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Citing internet footage of the event, the Corps charged that her “participation undermined [its] authority”, and proposed a 30-day suspension, a punishment one level below termination.
Heather Wylie, a 4-year biologist with the Regulatory Division of the Corps’ L.A. District, was cited for off-duty kayaking and for circulating a news article via e-mail documenting Clean Water Act enforcement problems. The August 7, 2008 “Notice of Proposed Suspension (30 Days)” is still pending, although Corps officials have told PEER that they will act later this month.
Ironically, subsequent events have validated concerns over Corps malfeasance which Ms. Wylie voiced:
- In mid-August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took jurisdiction away from the Corps to determine whether the Los Angeles and Santa Cruz river systems were Traditional Navigable Waterways, thus reversing steps by the Corps to diminish Clean Water Act safeguards; and
- The EPA chief of enforcement wrote a memo complaining that Corps interpretations, named by Ms. Wylie, were inappropriately obstructing enforcement of Clean Water Act standards.
“Making the Army Corps look foolish is not grounds for discipline,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is representing Ms. Wylie in challenging any adverse action. “Heather Wylie violated no law, rule or policy by kayaking the L.A. River on her own time and, as a citizen, she has the right to protest the wrongheaded actions of her own agency.”
Since the proposed suspension has been pending for more than two months and the Corps has rebuffed offers to resolve the matter, PEER today filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel charging the Corps with threatening Ms. Wylie for disclosing legal violations and infringing on her First Amendment free speech guarantees. If it finds the complaint has merit, the Special Counsel can direct the Corps to drop the proposed suspension and recommend discipline of managers who acted in a prohibited retaliatory manner.
“The Corps is ordering its specialists to ignore the law and will not tolerate the slightest peep of protest or expression of concern,” added Ruch, whose organization represents eco-whistleblowers. “The Corps should encourage its people to actively protect the environment, not punish them for it.”
Recent Corps L.A. District actions cited by Ms. Wylie are now also the focus of a joint investigation by the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.