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She Blew the Whistle on Pathogens That Escaped From a Government Lab. Now She’s Being Fired

A scientist who manages a biosafety lab in Washington State says she's being retaliated against for reporting a leak of an unknown quantity of unknown aquatic pathogens into Lake Washington.

by Maddie Bender
Feb 27 2020, 3:21pm

A career scientist who works for the U.S. government is alleging that her supervisors have retaliated against her for sounding an alarm about biosafety and workplace hazards. Her lawyers claim that she has been unfairly targeted for complaining about a litany of issues at a government science research center since 2017, including requesting an investigation after an unknown quantity of pathogens were released from her organization’s biosafety laboratory into the second-largest body of water in Washington State.

Evi Emmenegger worked at the Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC) in Seattle since 1996 until this January, when she was placed on administrative leave and served with a notice of proposed separation. The center is a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which studies natural resources and environmental and ecosystem health, water use, and Earth science.

Emmenegger managed an aquatic biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) lab, one of the few in the U.S. built for studying aquatic pathogens that pose a high risk to the environment. She also conducted research on fish diseases in a BSL-2 facility and the BSL-3 lab contained within it.

There are four biosafety levels for laboratories; BSL-4 is the highest security. BSL-4 labs have been used to study Ebola, variola (which causes smallpox), novel bird and swine flus, and other highly dangerous pathogens. BSL-3 labs have been used to study anthrax, SARS, MERS, West Nile virus, and yellow fever. Currently, the CDC is allowing BSL-2 labs to study the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus outbreak. To be clear, the WFRC studies pathogens that affect fish and other marine life.

“We allege that what's happened to Evi is a pretext to basically shut her up, and that that pretext is illegal retaliation in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act,” said Jeff Ruch, the Pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The organization is representing Emmenegger in a whistleblower challenge to her proposed removal.

“She's worked at the lab now for almost 28 years, and prior to 2017, had a spotless personnel record. After she started making these reports in 2017, as a report details, there were a whole series of things where it appeared to be a downward spiral,” Ruch said.

Internal correspondence and official documents from the WFRC reveal internal strife and a decline in facility conditions to the point of malfunction and danger to personnel. Emails between Emmenegger and other WFRC employees, as well as the results of the scientific integrity investigation into the 2017 pathogen leak obtained via a public records request, were shared with Motherboard. [All documents used to report this story can be found here.]

In a statement, USGS Western States Communications Chief Catherine Puckett wrote, “The USGS is aware of the PEER allegations and treats all employees’ concerns related to animal welfare, biosafety as well as occupational health and safety seriously. The USGS investigated these allegations thoroughly and determined there was no violation of scientific integrity regarding the complaint associated with the Western Fisheries Research Center. Even though there was not a loss of scientific integrity, several recommendations were made to improve the biosafety program, quarantine procedures for animals, and automated building control systems. These recommendations have been or are in the process of being implemented.”

USGS did not make employees available for interviews, including Emmenegger. In an email, USGS Acting Public Affairs Officer Karen Armstrong said that the organization does not comment on personnel matters.

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The WFRC is considered “a national and international resource for research on fish disease,” according to the center’s website. The facilities contain two large BSL-2 labs and a smaller BSL-3 lab where scientists study aquatic pathogens and raise fish and amphibians.

All water used for animal rearing or experiments is collected in a large tank, where it is meant to be chlorinated for about an hour to kill the pathogens, then dechlorinated and released into wetlands that lead into Lake Washington. The chlorine levels were checked on January 17, 2017. The next time they were checked on June 19, 2017, there was no chlorine in the wastewater, indicating the water had not been adequately treated to kill any pathogens in it.

“The point of these containment labs is to contain the pathogens. The fact they weren't being contained is as basic as you could get,” Ruch said.

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Findings of a scientific integrity report

Emmenegger first heard about the pathogen leak in August—two months after it was reported at an animal care meeting—but she first raised concerns over the wastewater, or effluent, over a year earlier.

At a July 2016 biosafety and biosecurity training, Emmenegger told WFRC Director Jill Rolland and others present that current standard operating procedures (SOP) for monitoring chlorine levels should be reevaluated.

According to the action items from that 2016 meeting, Emmenegger said, “I believe monitoring the post-treatment chlorine levels every 3-months is not enough and puts us at a greater risk for having an accidental environmental/pathogen release that could directly impact the adjacent wetlands that receives our de-chlorinated treated effluent.”

When she found out about the pathogen release in the summer of 2017, Emmenegger confronted her supervisor, Fish Health Section Chief Maureen Purcell. The next day, Purcell sent Emmenegger an email about the incident from her perspective.

“In summary, the problem was identified, actions were taken, appropriate personnel and committees were informed and the issue was documented,” Purcell wrote. “Yesterday in the hall you made several comments that I will paraphrase as: ‘That is good that you have covered your ass.’ and ‘This is going to look bad when it gets out’. I do not understand why you are making these statements as I feel the center’s response to this issue was in line with our policies.”

In an email sent the same day, Emmengger replied, “I never stated you needed to ‘cover your ass’. I did state that this chlorination shutdown is going to look bad if it wasn't handled properly.”

On August 3, 2017—the next day— Emmenegger asked about resources for whistleblowers in an email to Christopher Cox, an administrative officer at the time. She wrote in part, “I need someone's help and advice, I've been so stressed and hardly sleeping because of these recent incidences [sic]. The whistle blower paperwork is overwhelming and I still need to run the BSL-3 laboratory. I'm scared and feel like I've got no one turn to.”

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Lake Washington. Image: Getty Images

Two weeks before the six-week statute of limitations to make a complaint about the pathogen release would expire, Emmenegger began working with PEER, which helped her submit a complaint with the USGS Office of Science Quality and Integrity. The complaint alleged that Purcell and other managers engaged in scientific misconduct in their handling of incidents including the pathogen release. Over the next two years, PEER also filed public records requests for WFRC documents concerning the release and pressed for the Department of Interior to investigate the incident.

Ruch said that Emmenegger did not know the identities of the pathogens that other researchers in the BSL-2 lab were studying, but that some of the ones she worked with were “deadly.”

In the scientific integrity investigation report shared with Motherboard, an employee who worked in the BSL-2 lab whose name was redacted told investigators that only pathogens endemic to the Pacific Northwest were released, although their identity and quantity were unknown. In a write-up of their interview from January 2018, the employee is quoted as saying:

“RE: What happened when effluent got out? So the pathogens are endemic to west coast. If something new or different showed up in Lake Washington – everyone would have found out.”

USGS Scientific Integrity Officer Christopher Johnson closed the internal investigation into the pathogen release requested by Emmenegger in June 2019, concluding in his report that there was no loss of scientific integrity. In the determination section, though, he wrote that “the degradation of laboratory systems at WFRC happened gradually over the span of several decades. ...The quality of science may have been adversely affected, but this does not appear to have been intentional or reckless.”

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The pathogen release was not the only facility issue from 2017 onward that Emmenegger took to administrators, nor the only issue about which she clashed with Purcell. She also alleged that the working conditions inside the aquatic BSL-3 lab she managed were dangerous to researchers. This complaint was corroborated in emails by other scientists who worked in the lab.

On a Saturday in April 2017, months before she learned of the BSL-2 wastewater issue, Emmenegger fainted in the BSL-3 lab after working for many hours uninterrupted in the space. She later wrote that she may have also been dehydrated at the time.

The lab was built to handle exotic and invasive fish pathogens that could pose a risk to native species if released into the environment. As a BSL-3 lab, it possessed an airlock and a ventilation system that pumped more air out than it let in, creating negative air pressure in the room.

But the tightly controlled environment in the lab led to air quality issues, and researchers reported dizziness, headaches, and respiratory ailments beginning in 2017.

Scientists Gael Kurath and Douglas McKenney felt unwell while conducting a full-day experiment in the aquatic BSL-3 lab in November 2017. According to notes that Kurath took on the day following the incident, their symptoms worsened when they sprayed bleach in the lab as part of a decontamination procedure.

“Air seems stagnant? Stale.” she wrote. “Doug - light headed, a little fuzzy, hard to describe, tired. Gael - need fresh air, needed a break, head dull. By 6:30 after bleaching, felt very ‘spent’, more tired than seemed appropriate for physical work. Head tired, dull.”

Inspectors from the University of Washington Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee mentioned the “moderate to significant” issue of poor air quality inside the BSL-3 lab in their 2017 report of routine lab inspections.

Due to the air quality, as well as another facility issue relayed by Emmenegger to her supervisor Purcell, then-USGS Regional Director Rich Ferrero decommissioned the aquatic BSL-3 lab in March 2018, prohibiting further experiments in it until the issues were resolved. To date, the lab has not been recommissioned. The USGS would not make Purcell available for an interview nor respond to specific questions sent by Motherboard.

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Purcell sent a notice of proposed separation to Emmenegger on January 29, 2020 because Emmenegger did not submit a scientific manuscript for publication in the 2019 fiscal year, which was one of her job duties.

Ruch, one of the PEER lawyers representing Emmenegger, said that the notice was “incredibly flimsy and passive aggressive.”

“It's fair to say that the details laid out in this case show a sick management culture at USGS,” he said.

Emmenegger and Purcell clashed since Purcell’s appointment as Fish Health Section chief in 2017, and Emmenegger requested that all their correspondence be written or in person only with a third party present.

In communications with Purcell and Rolland, Emmenegger said that she was “stressed and anxious” in Purcell’s presence and “scared to voice [her] concerns.”

Later that year, in August, Emmenegger emailed Rolland to request another supervisor, the second time she had done so. She said that she hid in a bathroom stall the prior week to avoid having a one-on-one dialogue with Purcell.

Rolland denied Emmenegger’s request, writing “I acknowledge that there is interpersonal conflict between you and Dr. Purcell from what I believe are differences in perspective rather than true managerial issues. I expect employees to treat each other professionally and with respect regardless of whether or not you like each other.”

Based on their fraught relationship, PEER responded to the proposed separation and argued that Purcell used Emmenegger’s annual evaluation as a pretext. Her Employee Proposal Appraisement Plan had been altered for that fiscal year where previously it had remained constant since 2009. After failing to meet the subtask of a critical component in her plan, Emmenegger was given 20 days to prepare a scientific manuscript and associated metadata; PEER’s response claims that this timeline set her up for failure.

Ruch said that Emmenegger will find out the result of her appeal within 30 days.

In an October 2019 email to leaders at USGS, Emmenegger said that she had been experiencing ongoing harassment by WFRC senior staff after reporting biosafety violations and animal welfare issues.

“I didn't want to be a whistleblower, but this situation was forced upon me after years of trying to communicate biosafety/animal welfare concerns. I would to like serve my last five years before I retire in supportive working situation doing research in the BSL-3 lab.”

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biosafety