USGS Restores Fired Lab Biosafety Whistleblower
Scientist Had Raised Alarms about Wildlife Disease Lab Biosecurity Breaches
Washington, DC — In an abrupt turnaround, the U.S. Geological Survey has “rescinded” the removal of a microbiologist who had charged that biosafety failures in its wildlife disease laboratories were endangering the public, as well as compromising both research results and subjects, according to a legal filing posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency’s reversal occurred a little more than a month after the removal decision was finalized, as PEER’s challenge to the firing headed for a hearing before a U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge.
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.
After USGS had dismissed her Scientific Integrity complaint but conceded that “science produced at WFRC may have been adversely affected,” the same supervisor cited in that complaint began a process that led to a proposed removal in January 2020, based on alleged lapses in a research paper prepared for peer-reviewed publication. For more than a year, USGS took no further action, leaving Ms. Emmenegger on suspension, until the agency finalized its removal decision last month in March 2021.
“Evi Emmenegger is a textbook example of whistleblower retaliation and we are very happy she has been restored,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, the leader of Emmenegger’s legal team, noting that the agency has offered no rationale for its reversal. “We hope this is an early signal that whistleblowers will be treated differently in the Biden administration.”
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, including CDC, FDA, EPA, USDA, and NIH, undergo such independent accreditation.
“While Evi Emmenegger has been vindicated, the biosafety breakdowns she risked her career to remedy could still recur tomorrow,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is suing USGS to force release of records documenting ongoing biosafety breakdowns. “We hope that the new leadership at USGS will accept independent accreditation of its wildlife disease labs to prevent future releases of viruses and other pathogens.”