Washington, DC–Navy officials have trumped up charges against an outspoken environmental specialist at the Cutler Computer and Telecommunications Detachment in order to remove him from his job, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national employee protection organization. Filed before the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the PEER complaint seeks to overturn the proposed termination of Dr. Normand Laberge, a civilian Environmental Protection Specialist at Cutler Naval Base in northeastern Maine.
In mid-April, Dr. Laberge was issued a notice of proposed removal from federal service. Supervisors cited an asbestos violation from August 2002 as the basis for the action, even though an independent investigation had found that Dr. Laberge was not responsible for the violation. According to today’s complaint, the asbestos incident was “a pretext for retaliation” against a specialist who, for many years, pointed out violations of safety and environmental laws on the base.
Dr. Laberge’s vigorous enforcement of safety and environmental rules on the base has often put him at odds with Navy leadership. In one 1997 incident, he discovered that paint removed from communications structures on the base contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), synthetic chemical compounds known to cause cancer and immune system disorders in humans. Dr. Laberge’s repeated requests that the base disclose the health hazards to the Environmental Protection Agency were ignored; paint removal continued for more than a year, risking the health of federal workers and contamination of the adjacent seacoast. After pointing out the violation Dr. Laberge was officially reprimanded and eventually removed from the project, but a subsequent federal investigation eventually supported Dr. Laberge’s charges.
In another incident described in the complaint, Dr. Laberge lost his email privileges after base officials discovered that he was communicating with EPA officials about the contamination of coastal waters.
“The Navy has one of the worst records of retaliating against its own employees who raise problems, and Dr. Laberge is a classic case in point,” commented PEER’s General Counsel Dan Meyer, a former Navy officer. “Ironically, this case is occurring at a time when the Department of Defense is seeking exemptions from environmental laws by claiming that its own specialists are a sufficient safeguard. This episode suggests precisely the opposite¾that the Pentagon requires external oversight in order to protect public health and a clean environment.”
Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, if the Office of Special Counsel determines that the proposed termination is retaliatory it may seek a stay against any further personnel action.