Good Question

Northwest Fair Housing asked the Center to research whether a person’s eligibility for Social Security/Social Security Disability payments would be compromised by their receiving monetary payments resulting from a lawsuit judgment. The Center collaborated with Community Minded Enterprises to quickly determine that lawsuit payments would not make a person ineligible for SSI/SSDI.

Double Troubles

Eduardo came to us after two major setbacks. First, his social security benefits were cut off because he left California to tend for his son, who’d become ill in Washington. Years later, he received a notice telling him that he owed more than $33,000 in back pay. This bolt from the blue, he learned, was due to a previous felony in California that had cast him into felony fugitive status. An intern at the Center was able to do some research that ultimately resulted in getting Eduardo’s warrant dismissed and the back-pay demand dismissed. Social Security also reimbursed him for a period in which they’d stopped sending his checks and also confirmed that he could continue to receive benefits in the future.

A Nurse’s Dream

Karen was in her mid-40’s when she first came to the Center seeking help. She‘d been a nursing assistant for years and decided to go back to school to get her degree in nursing. She applied for nursing school but was denied because of past criminal convictions. The Center helped Karen get her past convictions expunged from her record and she was able to pursue her dream of attending nursing school.

A daughter’s pain

Pauline came to us after watching her bed ridden daughter suffer with cerebral palsy. In order to alleviate constant back pain, Pauline’s daughter needed Botox treatments to alleviate the stress on her back. But the treatments were denied. The Center stepped in and helped negotiate a year long approval for her daughter to receive these treatments and allow her a better quality of life.

The Parking Lot

To expand its parking area, a local bank bought adjacent property in a residential neighborhood. In order to placate neighbor concerns about the expansion, the bank promised to provide adequate fencing and lighting. But the expansion occurred, and the promised improvements did not. Drivers trying to reach the bank were cutting across neighbors’ yards. The neighbors approached the Center for help in getting the bank to honor its commitment. After a year of negotiating with the bank, the Center succeeded in getting the bank to install a fence and proper lighting.

The Scooter

Sally was involved in an auto accident while riding her scooter and the scooter was badly damaged. Her insurance company wanted only to pay for repairs. The Center advocated for Sally to get the scooter replaced. The negotiations with the insurance company lasted for a year and a half, but Sally finally received a new scooter.

The Wheelchair

Kara had been a faithful employee for a quarter century. But during this time she became disabled to the extent that she needed a wheelchair at work. As a result of her limited mobility, Kara felt she was being discriminated against and feared that her job was in jeopardy. The Center was able to help her negotiate for a proper wheelchair, secure extended family leave, and get access to long-term disability funds until she retires.

The Caregiver

Mary had been a caregiver for a person who’d passed away. The son of the deceased person wouldn’t allow her to remove her personal belongings from the premises. She sought legal representation, but was stymied by transportation difficulties. The Center stepped in to represent Mary and help her get permission to retrieve her things. It took one year, but Mary was able to get her belongings back.

Remembering Otto Zehm

Two years ago, Otto Zehm went into a north side convenience store for a bottle of pop and a Snickers bar. In the aftermath of his tragic death, it became utterly clear that Spokane had a lot of work to do to rebuild confidence in its police. It’s time to finish the job.

At 6:26 p.m. on March 18, 2006 Otto Zehm went into a north side convenience store for a bottle of pop and a Snickers bar. He didn’t leave until after he’d been mortally subdued at the hands of Spokane police officers.

For more in the way of statistics you could look broadly at the calendar, at the more than a dozen fatalities of suspects at the hands of Spokane area law enforcement officers over the past two years. But Otto Zehm’s death is a community touchstone. If you want to know what the senseless death of your son, your daughter, your brother, your closest friend, might look like you can see it on the store’s surveillance video. If you want to know what it looks like when your police department–with all of its traditions, expectations, and honored public servants–badly mangles its credibility, then that’s available too, in the way the SPD completely misled the public, the press, and perhaps even itself by repeatedly putting out false information about Otto Zehm and what had happened in the North Division Zip Trip that night.

And it was with this chilling visibility, without a place for hard truths to hide, that Spokane, its new police chief, and a subdued Mayor and city council gave itself permission to consider institutional changes that many thought were long overdue. Consultants were hired, public forums were scheduled.

In those meeting rooms, one could usually find the face of Mary Ann Tripp, the Spokane woman who, a quarter century ago, began to organize a citizen effort to try to bring some semblance of independent oversight to issues of alleged police misconduct. Ms. Tripp’s son had been beaten by Spokane police during an October 1979 arrest, an arrest observed at close hand by a reluctant witness who corroborated the gratuitous brutality involved. It was not an isolated incident. The public demand for more police oversight grew until it eventually took the form of an infrequently meeting Citizen Review Commission.

There were lots of problems with the Citizen Review Commission and they are chronicled, well enough, in reports filed in October 2006 and April 2007 by independent consultants Mike Worley and Sam Pailca respectively. Of the two reports, Pailca’s is the one that focused most intently on external police oversight. Pailca, a lawyer who was just finishing up a seven year assignment as head of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, could not have been clearer in her recommendation:

“(T)he City of Spokane [should] disband the Citzens’ Review Commission and create a new office within the executive branch to serve as an ombudsman/monitor of citizen complaints about employees of the Spokane Police Department.”

Late last year the Spokane City Council approved $200,000 in the City’s 2008 budget to fund the office, but recent comments by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner to a Spokesman-Review reporter are disconcerting, at best. In her comments to the newspaper, the Mayor indicated that she may no longer favor the full-time position recommended by Pailca because of the cost of the office. Her comments have not only re-opened the debate but have reawakened longstanding fears that Spokane just can’t bring itself to commit to the police oversight reforms that Boise, Idaho and other U.S. cities have put in place.

For more in the way of statistics you could look broadly at the calender, at the more than a dozen fatalities of suspects at the hands of Spokane area law enforcement officers over that last two years. But Otto Zehm’s death is a community touchstone. If you want to know what the senseless death of your son, your daughter, your brother, your closest friend, might look like you can see it on the store’s surveillance video. If you want to know what it looks like when your police department–with all of its traditions, expectations, and honored public servants–badly mangles its credibility, then that’s available too, in the way the SPD completely misled the public, the press, and perhaps even itself by repeatedly putting out false information about Otto Zehm and what had happened in the North Division Zip Trip that night.

“It really did hurt a lot,” said Mary Ann Tripp when she learned the City might be reneging on its pledge to fully fund the office. “It made me sad. I’m just about to give up, to tell the truth.”

“The question here is not just whether Otto Zehm died in vain,” says Center for Justice attorney Breean Beggs, “but whether diminishing the scope of the new office makes much sense when you look more deeply at what’s at stake for the police and the city’s long-term financial health.”

Beggs’s argument begins with the numbers.

“The monetary value is this,” he says. “A wrongful death finding in Washington usually translates to a public liability of between $300,000 and $2 million in the hands of a jury or in settlement. And that’s only if there’s not a federal civil rights claim involved. If there’s a federal civil rights claim involved, then there’s also the potential for punitive damages that could run well into additional millions of dollars.”

By example, Beggs points to a federal jury verdict earlier this month in Pittsburgh where the family of 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe was awarded $28 million for Ellerbe’s shooting death by Pennsylvania state troopers. A common element in the Ellerbe case and the Zehm case, Beggs noted, is that in both instances there is strong evidence that the police were not truthful about the events leading to the fatalities.

“So my argument on the value of the office is this,” Beggs says. “If you prevent just one wrongful death per year because of the Ombudsman office you’re saving, at a minimum, more than what it costs to fund the office because, remember, the City of Spokane is essentially self-insured when it comes to paying for the kinds of damages or settlements that these cases lead to. Of course the other cost your avoiding here is the substantial cost to the city just to defend these cases.”

CFJ attorney Terri Sloyer makes the same point in pointing to the track of record of the nine year old Office of the Community Ombudsman in Boise. In addition to investigating citizen complaints, the Boise Ombudsman’s office regularly prepares issue specific reports and recommendations to improve police procedures in areas that have ranged from the use of Tasers, to dealing with public intoxication, to dealing with the interaction between police and the city’s homeless population. It is these sort of specific reforms and improvements, the CFJ attorneys insist, that would pay dividends for Spokane, in the future, by preventing deaths and injuries and the lawsuits that ensue from them.

Despite some recent progress in training officers to deal more effectively with people who are mentally ill, Beggs says the overall relationship between Spokane police and the community “is still broken.”

“What the Otto Zehm case did is it brought to light how broken the relationship is between the police and the citizenry,” Beggs says. “And two years later, it’s still broken. The police and the citizens and the city government have taken some steps to repair that relationship, but it isn’t complete yet. The most important step is the fully funded, independent office of police oversight. That’s the number one thing that will help repair the relationship, that will pay for itself, that will begin to restore trust in the police and that will help the police improve their professionalism.”

To the extent that cost remains a factor in the decisions about whether and how to form the Ombudsman office, Beggs says city decision-makers should consider two other issues.

The first is that the City of Spokane can and should look to the Spokane County Sheriff’s office to help fund the Ombudsman office inasmuch as the new office would be very well situated to investigate incidents involving Sheriff’s deputies. Likewise, the offices services could be extended to other municipalities in Spokane County that need independent reviews of police conduct.

The second has to do with the Zehm case itself. Beggs and CFJ continue to work with the Zehm family on the pending wrongful death claim against the City and, Beggs notes, the City has already established a tort claim reserve fund to handle a judgment or settlement in the case.

“From our conversations with the family,” Beggs says, “it is reasonable to expect that the City’s willingness to fund the Ombudsman office on a fulltime basis would be a positive factor in how this case is settled. Establishing the office will make it a lot easier to reach a monetary settlement, and if there is one the City could then use a portion of their tort claim reserve to fund the office.”

The Whistleblower

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.

–Tim Connor

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.