What scientist Drea Traeumer’s story says about the fate of the Spokane River and the state of the State of Washington
Shortly before two o’clock on January 30th Drea Traeumer took a seat at the witness table in a small hearing room in Olympia and brought new life to a pair of important stories. One is about the efforts to clean up the Spokane River. The other is about how Washington’s lead environmental agency continues, at times, to be a blunt instrument for polluters at the expense of the environment and the people the agency is supposed serve.
The purpose of the hearing before the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee was to take testimony on a new bill that would strengthen Washington’s Whistleblower protection law. A day earlier, Traeumer had testified before a state senate committee at work on a similar bill.
“I think we spout a lot of platitudes about how interested we are in open government, in transparency, and being able to shine the light of day,” said Spokane Representative Timm Ormsby, the bill’s prime sponsor. But, he noted, Washington state is “an outlier” among states in terms of the meager protection it affords whistleblowers.
In introducing Traeumer (pronounced “Traymer”) Ormsby cited her case an “an example, where I live” involving a state employee who tried to bring scientific evidence on a vital public issue forward.
Traeumer spoke quickly, but clearly. She recounted how she was hired in June 2006 by the state’s Department of Ecology to be the lead scientist on one of the state’s most visible and contentious regulatory challenges–the effort to bring the Spokane River into compliance with state surface water standards for dissolved oxygen.
“My position, specifically, was to uphold and implement the Clean Water Act which requires that states restore the biological, physical and chemical integrity of their surface waters,” she said.
Two years before she was hired, Traeumer noted, Ecology had prepared a technical analysis of the dissolved oxygen problem on the river that was, in her words, “legally and scientifically defensible.” But what that analysis showed is that in order to come into compliance with the law, discharges of phosphorus–the main nutrient responsible for the dissolved oxygen problem–needed to be dramatically reduced.
“This caused a bit of an uproar,” Traeumer reported. “There was a lot of push back from the dischargers and Ecology just chose to enter into a two year negotiation to come up with a result that would create capacity[for continued discharges of phosphorus]. And in order to effect this result, policy decisions were made at the top which would then drive the science to come to those conclusions.”
By driving the science, Traeumer meant that the policy decision, which effectively lowered the water quality standard, caused a shift in the results of the scientific analysis in a direction that significantly favors the dischargers.
Lawyers at the Center for Justice, and their client, the Sierra Club, saw the issues and consequences the same way Traeumer did and have since filed sharp criticisms objecting to Ecology’s course of action.
“Drea’s courage in speaking out helped expose the legal and technical shortcomings of Ecology’s flawed approach,” says Rick Eichstaedt, one of the Center for Justice lawyers who’s been deeply involved in trying to persuade Ecology and river dischargers to embrace a plan that can fulfill the requirements of the law.
As the project’s lead scientist, Traeumer was being required to author a plan that, in her view, was neither scientifically nor legally defensible. Her internal protests, she said, “were ignored, with the exception of a face-to-face with management to tell me not to put that [her specific concerns with the defensibility of the plan] in email [because] it could be used against Ecology” if the emails became public.
The expectation, she said, is that she would author the plan anyway “and then roll it out and sell it to the public at the public meeting, the public hearing. I couldn’t do that in good faith. I thought it was negligent of my duties. I couldn’t tell the truth. I’m not the type to deceive the public who’s paying my salary to uphold the law, for their river.”
“As it is now,” Traeumer concluded, “the only check on this will be when this cleanup plan is appealed and it will be in a judge’s hands.”
When Traeumer left Ecology at the end of August of 2007, her resignation did become a story, at least for a while. But it didn’t create nearly the stir statewide that other whistleblower stories (e.g. the high profile Hanford whistleblower stories in the 1980s) have received.
At least part of the reason for this is that Ecology has a talented public relations team. This is especially true in Eastern Washington where Jani Gilbert, a personable and articulate former journalist, is the agency’s spokesperson. Indeed, one ironic twist in the days after Traeumer’s jarring resignation is that it was Gilbert, not Traeumer, who became the subject of a colorful and flattering profile in the Spokesman-Review.
By contrast, the the Spokane River dissolved oxygen controversy is tediously complicated. Even a well educated and careful reader may struggle to grasp how and why phosphorus, through a tertiary effect, causes oxygen depletion in the Spokane River. Add to this the intertwining scientific and legal issues and the essence of the controversy can easily get lost in a fog.
In handling the initial controversy over Traeumer’s resignation, Ecology decided not to get into a public argument with her over the issues that led to her resignation. Instead, agency spokespersons chose to argue past the science, to emphasize the continuing improvements in water quality and the commitments dischargers were making under the new plan to further reduce phosphorus entering the river.
From a purely public relations perspective, that strategy seemed to work. There’s a lot progress to point to in Spokane River quality because, going back seventy years, the baseline was so abysmal. Spokane began discharging raw sewage to the river in 1889. Even after the state board of health deemed the effluent-laden river “grossly polluted” and a “public health hazard” in 1935, the city’s leaders refused to build a sewage treatment plant for another quarter century. It wasn’t until the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 that Spokane finally (with a massive influx of federal funds) installed a modern plant to protect the signature river of its environmental-themed 1974 World’s Fair.
The problem, now, is that even secondary sewage treatment systems allow too heavy a nutrient load into the river. This creates the chronic dissolved oxygen problem during summer months on Lake Spokane, where eutrophication events still lead to massive and sometimes toxic algae blooms. Twelve years ago, the river was formally designated as out of compliance with federal and state surface water standards.
The purpose of Ecology’s federally-required and much anticipated river cleanup plan was to meet the water quality standard of the river, as the law required it. But Traeumer saw that it couldn’t work. It couldn’t work simply because the legal water quality standard was no longer being used for the plan, per a policy decision to abandon it.
Ecology’s first response came in a September 13th guest column in the Spokesman-Review. Without mentioning Traeumer by name, Gilbert and Grant Pfeifer, Ecology’s eastern regional director, insisted the controversy over her resignation was “NOT a big deal because scientists almost always disagree and argue over details.”
Moreover, the column assured, Ecology “had done the best we could, working with many community leaders, to come up with a plan that everyone could live with and that gets us to a point where we are not violating water-quality standards.”
But these assertions were untrue. Although each had participated in the lengthy series of meetings on the dissolved oxygen problem, neither the Center for Justice, nor its client, the Sierra Club, endorsed the plan and both would, in fact, file lengthy objections to it. More to the point, the project’s lead scientist wouldn’t have resigned if she thought the plan was something she could live with.
Furthermore, this was no garden variety dispute over a few scientific details. As Traeumer testified in January, she wasn’t the first scientist working on the project who was asked to suppress basic scientific objections. The first lead scientist on the project was Ken Merrill who had co-authored the 2004 analysis that caused the “uproar.” Merrill, Traeumer testified, had “dissented” from Ecology’s revised approach “and was effectively pushed out of his position because it wasn’t legally or technically defensible any more.”
Merrill confirmed this to Spokesman-Review reporter James Hagengruber last fall.
“I was trying to make it legally, scientifically, and technically defensible,” he told Hagengruber. “[Ecology] Management decided to go a different route from the route we developed.”
Merrill was re-assigned to another job. Likewise, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency engineer Dave Ragsdale, who’d worked on the Spokane River cleanup plan for most of a decade confirmed to Hagengruber that he’d been reassigned as well.
“They [EPA] came up with a new process and I’m not supposed to talk about it,” Ragsdale told the reporter. “I have a difference of opinion than the official agency perspective.”
But there was something else about what Gilbert and Pfeifer wrote in their September 13th column that Traeumer takes strong exception to. It was their characterization about what was at issue.
“Simply put,” Gilbert and Pfeifer wrote, “it is a disagreement among scientists on the computer simulation-modeling.”
But Traeumer is adamant.
“There was no disagreement between me and another scientist,” she says, “and the issue wasn’t about the computer modeling. The sole issue, as Ecology well knows and which I cited in both my written recommendations and resignation letter, was the policy decision and how it effectively lowered the water quality standard and significantly shifted the scientific conclusions of the clean up plan. ”
When asked what happened when she raised her scientific objections to the Ecology plan, Traeumer says, “I simply got no response.”
Traeumer says she saw Ecology’s public relations push back as “the machine at work.” But rather than getting angry about it, she just became more resolute. And that’s the attitude she took with her to Olympia this winter.
Traeumer’s surprising appearance before the legislature in January embarrassed Ecology and led to an unexpected consequence. The agency impeached itself.
It happened this way. Within minutes after Traeumer finished speaking, Ecology’s Deputy Director, Polly Zehm, came before the committee to offer her own testimony on the changes to the Whistleblower bill.
“I don’t know if we’ll have time to talk about the Spokane River water cleanup plan issue that you just heard about,” Zehm said, “but I would be happy to provide my agency’s perspective on that if the committee is interested because we certainly have a different perspective.”
Ecology provided its rebuttal the next day, followed by a 12-page response from Traeumer a few days later. The exchange is not unlike a sports highlight that would be introduced to viewers with a warning that some may want to look away because the video records a gruesome injury. In this case the gruesome injury is to Ecology’s credibility.
Traeumer first took a scythe to the straw man arguments that Ecology had concocted last September and repeated in its January 31st response to the legislature.
“To bring the river into immediate compliance with the standard,” Ecology reported, “would have required us to say that no one, including the City of Spokane, could discharge wastewater into the river.”
This was a bogus issue, Traeumer pointed out, because under the Clean Water Act’s compliance scheme, “immediate compliance was not expected nor required.” What was required was an implementation plan that was scientifically credible within the parameters of the law.
And it was here that Ecology, perhaps unwittingly, essentially conceded that Traeumer and Ken Merrill and EPA’s Dave Ragsdale had gotten it right.
“This plan [Merrill’s 2004 draft] was developed following Ecology’s and EPA’s standard approach,” Ecology reported. “However, once we reviewed public comments, Ecology management determined that this plan was clearly not suitable for the complex situation that exists today in the Spokane area, nor would it adequately address technical and economic issues of future population growth.”
This is actually a fairly accurate description of what Drea Traeumer was trying to blow the whistle about. It’s just that anybody who followed the public controversy over the river cleanup knows that it wasn’t really “public comment” that got Ecology’s attention as much as the loud and orchestrated protests from river dischargers.
But Traeumer pointed something else out. If it really was true that the legally mandated cleanup plan was “clearly not suitable for the complex situation that exists today in the Spokane area,” state and federal laws actually provide an avenue that would legally allow river dischargers to avoid compliance. It’s called a “Use Attainability Analysis” and its purpose is to allow polluters to show that one or more federal and state surface water standards are unreasonable or practically unattainable.
Ecology made no mention of this in its response to Traeumer’s testimony. And those who’ve closely followed the river debate understand why. In recent years, Spokane river dischargers have worked closely with Ecology to consider whether a UAA exemption for the Spokane River would be possible. But Ecology has repeatedly determined that it just won’t fly, and that a formal petition would almost certainly be rejected on scientific and economic grounds.
Traeumer’s point is simply this. Ecology management, faced with concerted push back from river dischargers, decided to bend the rules anyway. Knowing that a formal UAA would likely fail on the merits, and facing powerful opposition not to go forward with the legally required cleanup plans that Traeumer and Merrill advocated, Ecology managers solved the problem with a decision to implement a plan that its own scientists considered indefensible.
“Of significance,” wrote Traeumer, “is the fact that the proper approach to change the water quality standard (Use Attainability Analysis and Rule Making) was abandoned; however, the water quality standard was effectively changed through two significant policy decisions.”
The first decision was EPA’s move, under pressure from Idaho interests, to “split the (Spokane River) watershed at the political boundary.” But the second, Traeumer insisted, was Ecology’s subsequent policy decision “to abandon the use of the water quality at the outlet of Lake Coeur d’Alene for the natural condition” and move it to the state line, downstream of the Idaho sewage treatment plants on the river. In summary, Traeumer says, “the policy decision shifted the results of the scientific analysis significantly, in a way that favors the dischargers.”
The exchange between Drea Traeumer and her former agency is not unlike a sports highlight that would be introduced to viewers with a warning that some may want to look away because the video captures a gruesome injury. In this case, the gruesome injury is to Ecology’s credibility. It was here that Ecology, perhaps unwittingly, essentially conceded that Traeumer, her predecessor Ken Merill, and EPA’s Dave Ragsdale had gotten it right.
For Traeumer, it wasn’t enough to talk about how Ecology had corrupted the process. She also wanted to go inside the numbers to explain how Ecology was complicit in corrupting the math by allowing the dischargers in each of the two states to lay claim to all of the river’s very limited capacity to absorb phosphorus.
“This new approach, couched in policy decisions,” Traeumer wrote, “effectively lowered the water quality standard in Long Lake and allowed both Washington and Idaho to each take the allowable o.20 mg/l decrease in dissolved oxygen in Long Lake.”
Translation: You can play around all you want with state lines and measurement locations, but two plus two still does not equal two.
The rest of the dispute was really just a collection of talking points that Ecology threw out to distract from the real issue and to try to shift the blame for the controversy onto supposedly obstructionist critics. Sure, Traeumer conceded, the new plan would improve water quality in the river. But that was another straw man issue. Getting the river cleaner is not so hard. The challenge is how to improve dissolved oxygen levels in Long Lake so it is clean enough to foster a healthy environment for fish. That was what the law required, or as she dryly put it in response to Ecology’s comments, the goal “is to meet the water quality standard.”
“The mantra of this new approach,” Traeumer wrote the legislature, “is now adaptive management, ‘wait and see,’ and dissenters have been and will continue to be, publicly accused of delaying improvements to the river. Please understand dissenters recognize this plan is smoke and mirrors brought on by policy decisions, and they simply want to see a legally and scientifically defensible plan developed for the river that is based on reality and will meet the water quality standard.”
This is not the first time that Ecology has made ill-founded and major policy decisions under pressure from powerful interest groups in Eastern Washington. Nine years ago the agency’s reputation was badly damaged after it got caught, red-handed, secretly negotiating an agricultural burning plan with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers after it had promised clean air groups that it would promulgate scientifically-backed burning regulations. It didn’t help that a public records request turned up a memo showing that the agency had colluded with the wheat growers’ lobbyists to make it appear as though the plan had come from Ecology when, in fact, it had come from the growers.
At least that controversy ended well. With the help of the Center for Justice, clean air groups eventually brought suit in federal court. The lawsuit led to a settlement agreement under which Ecology committed to following through on new rule making for agricultural burning. Ecology’s agricultural burning program is now the most sophisticated and protective of public health in the nation. It just took a decade to get there.
It’s not at all clear that the Spokane River cleanup is on a similar track. In the weeks after she testified, Traeumer wondered about the effect of her resignation. But she had no doubt that she’d made the right decision for her. She walked back through the ethical dilemma the agency had put her in by asking her to take the lead in publicly defending the river cleanup plan that she had.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said.
When she resigned last fall, Traeumer at least held out hope that the public reaction would make a difference.
“I figured if I couldn’t do it, maybe the public could.”
But that was before the public was on the receiving end of an aggressive effort by Ecology to portray the controversy as an inconsequential technical argument.
“It’s all been about obscuring the issue,” Traeumer says. “They responded to it like I was caught up in the minutiae of the computer modeling.”
I asked her if she thought the issues involved were just too complicated for her to get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion on her scientific objections.
“Trust me,” she replied, “If I can give a twenty minute presentation to the public, they’d completely understand it.”
The opportunity to testify before the legislature had come about quickly and, she says, she didn’t hesitate to accept. The proposed changes to the whistleblower protection law, she says, could very well have made the difference for her if they’d been in place last year. Specifically, the proposed new language for the law would allow for a scientist facing Traeumer’s dilemma to demand an investigation by the state auditor where he or she believes a technical finding has been changed without reasonable scientific justification, and be protected in doing so.
Five months after her resignation, Drea Traeumer is working on a masters degree in Biological and Agricultural Engineering from the University of Idaho, trying to start a new consulting business, and splitting her time between Sandpoint and Reno. When I asked about why she continues to speak out about the flaws in Ecology’s new plan for the Spokane River, Traeumer said she wasn’t angry, just resolute.
“I’m still trying to effect the change,” she says. “I’m being given opportunities and I’m taking them.”
As she was leaving the witness table during the crush of business at the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee, a voice called out to her. It was Senator and committee member Eric Oemig from Seattle.
“I want to celebrate and applaud your courage,” he told her.
To view Drea Traeumer’s testimony before the House Committee on Government & Tribal Affairs, click here.
To view letter 2/19/08 letter supporting state Whistleblower reforms from CELP & Sierra Club, click here.