Washington, DC–The Cutler Navy Base worker who first reported serious pollution violations may lose his legal protections due to a technicality. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national watchdog group, filed an appeal Monday with the United States Court of Appeals to overturn an administrative ruling that a Navy environmental specialist has no standing under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
In September 1996, paint removed from communications structures on the Cutler Navy base was found to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), synthetic chemical compounds that cause serious health problems in humans, including some forms of cancer and immune system disorders. The production of PCBs has been banned in the United States since the 1970’s. Environmental Compliance Officer Normand Laberge repeatedly pushed the Cutler Navy base to disclose the health hazards to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The base’s Commanding Officer, Captain Eric Glidden, ignored Laberge’s recommendations and paint removal continued for more than a year without any precautions, thus risking the health of federal workers and contamination of the adjacent seacoast. Navy officials also refused to commission an environmental study of the problem as required under federal law. After Laberge pointed out the violation, he was officially reprimanded and eventually removed from the project.
Under pressure from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Navy finally began an environmental assessment in 1999, but by then the work delay had gone on so long that the Navy was forced to pay the contractor, Abhe & Svoboda, several hundred thousand dollars for work never done. Taxpayers will also foot the bill for cleaning up the damage from the aborted job.
Laberge challenged his removal from the project. In a surprise decision that severely narrowed the legal definition of a whistleblower, the US Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ruled this June that even though the Navy had violated federal environmental laws, and Laberge met retaliation for his disclosures, Laberge is still not covered under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act because his disclosures were made in the course of doing his job. Under this new interpretation, a whistleblower would only be protected if disclosures were made to certain bodies, including the media, an Inspector General, or the Office of Special Counsel.
“MSPB found that Normand Laberge acted heroically, but that they are willing to let him hang on a technicality,” stated PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer, himself a former Navy whistleblower. “We are confident that our appeal will set things right. This guy should get a medal.”