For Immediate Release
Monday, March 21, 2021
USGS Fires Lab Biosafety Whistleblower
Scientist’s Year-Long Limbo Ends; Groups Push for Accrediting USGS Labs
Washington, DC — A microbiologist who charges that biosafety failures in U.S. Geological Survey wildlife disease laboratories are endangering the public, as well as compromising both research results and subjects has been removed from federal service after a more than year-long battle. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today filed an appeal to her dismissal and is leading a coalition seeking independent accreditation of USGS labs to prevent future releases of viruses and other pathogens.
Eveline (Evi) Emmenegger, a microbiologist, managed the highest biosafety level containment laboratory at USGS’ Seattle-based Western Fisheries Research Center, working there for more than 28 years with excellent job performance ratings until recently. She had filed a Scientific Integrity complaint concerning the failure to address problems that led to a six-month period where that lab had been releasing pathogen-contaminated wastewater into the wetland adjoining one of Seattle’s most popular parks around Lake Washington, among other, related issues.
In 2019, USGS dismissed her Scientific Integrity complaint, but conceded that “science produced at WFRC may have been adversely affected” and the biosecurity breaches she identified needed to be remedied. Shortly thereafter, her supervisor, who was cited for misconduct in the complaint, began a process that led to a proposed termination based on alleged lapses in a research paper prepared for peer-reviewed publication. Her paper was not challenged for the accuracy of her results which concerned intra-species mortality from the introduction of exotic of viruses and was to be the first of a series.
Following her rebuttal to the proposed removal, she was left on administrative leave for more than a year until a decision was issued separating her from federal service effective March 5, 2021. The agency upheld the action against Ms. Emmenegger despite –
- Approving a paper using identical data and results but with a different lead author;
- Failing to act on multiple biosafety problems Ms. Emmenegger documented, except to remove her from oversight committees and curtail her access to lab equipment; and
- Rejecting numerous attempts by Ms. Emmenegger to be reassigned to a new supervisor.
“Evi Emmenegger is a prime example of how federal agencies treat scientists who report integrity issues,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who today filed an appeal on her behalf with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal civil service administrative court, noting that, as one of his first actions, President Biden issued a government-wide directive on respecting scientific integrity and protecting scientists. “In this case, USGS removed the wrong employees from federal service.”
PEER also is leading a coalition of conservation, animal welfare, and public interest groups pressing USGS to submit to the accepted standards in the scientific community for live animal laboratories including independent verification of meeting standards for biosafety and animal care. Most every other federal agency with animal labs, such as CDC, FDA, EPA, USDA, and NIH all undergo independent accreditation.
“USGS wants to maintain complete discretion over its investment decisions in lab equipment and maintenance, even at risk to staff safety and good science,” said Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is suing USGS to force release of documents showing ongoing biosafety breakdowns. “USGS scientists should not have to cast profiles in courage to report laboratory breakdowns.”