When Good Science is Bad Politics

A troublesome family of synthetic chemicals called PFCs—many of them produced in Minnesota—is turning up in the bodies of people and animals worldwide. So why did the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency force its leading PFC researcher, Dr. F

Whatever may have been said at that 2003 meeting between Corrigan and Oliaei, other MPCA managers suggest that Oliaei's push for further investigation into PFC contamination was simply too aggressive—and expensive. In that, they seem to echo Corrigan's alleged contention that the MPCA is no place for primary research. As Mike Sandusky, one of Oliaei's former supervisors, puts it: "Without unlimited budgets the state has to be very careful on how it spends its money. We're very careful, in particular, with the notion of spending money on primary research when we know that the EPA is conducting a lot of primary research with these chemicals."

As Oliaei continued to demand more funds, her relationship with her supervisors continued to deteriorate. The rapport took a dramatic downturn last winter after Oliaei gave a series of interviews about PFCs to Minnesota Public Radio, which produced the first significant reporting on the subject in the state. Last April, in the wake of those interviews, Oliaei received a formal reprimand from her supervisor, Paul Hoff, who contended that Oliaei had violated the MPCA's media policy. While the two-page letter was short on specifics, its tone was both accusatory and threatening. Oliaei, Hoff wrote, "misstated" facts and the agency's position and "dishonored the hard work of our colleagues." Effective immediately, Hoff added, Oliaei was to notify him right away if she received any further contacts from the media. The reprimand concluded with the warning that any further violations of the MPCA's media policy could lead to "further disciplinary action up to and including discharge."

For Oliaei, that was the final straw. She took her complaint to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that specializes in providing legal assistance to government whistleblowers. Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, says he was impressed by Oliaei and appalled by her story. "We don't represent everyone who comes walking through the door. But her experience was very compelling. The agency didn't care what she said to her colleagues. They cared what was said to the public. It seemed like a classic First Amendment case," Ruch says. "If Fardin's research hadn't focused on a chemical made by the state's largest manufacturer, she'd probably still be working with the MPCA."

While Oliaei often found herself at odds with her supervisors at the MPCA, others who worked with her speak admiringly of both her commitment and competence. "To me, she seemed very competent and certainly enthusiastic. I was happy to work with her," says Mark Riggs, a chemist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who collected fish samples on a 10-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in 2004 and 2005 for Oliaei. Riggs viewed Oliaei as persistent, though not disrespectful. "I wouldn't say she was constantly ripping on people. But she didn't seem to be afraid of stepping on toes to get things done," Riggs observes, adding: "I never had any reason to question her skills or her agenda. She wanted to do good science. And as far as I can tell, she was doing good science."

When Oliaei resigned her position this February—in exchange for dropping a whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court, she was given a $325,000 settlement—outraged scientists and environmentalists sent letters condemning the MPCA to both Commissioner Corrigan and her boss, Governor Pawlenty. In one such missive, Ake Bergman, a prominent Swedish researcher who serves as the chair of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, praised Oliaei's "pioneering research." In Bergman's view, Oliaei's work has been of "significant value to other scientists throughout the world." Bergman denounced the MPCA's treatment of Oliaei as "deeply tragic and extremely counterproductive."

State Senator Marty, who has repeatedly called Oliaei to testify at Senate hearings, says he, too, is impressed with the researcher. He is less charitable in his estimation of the MPCA leadership. "It's absolutely shameful the way they treated her," Marty asserts. "Sometimes an agency will fire an employee because they're not doing their work. In effect, the MPCA fired Oliaei because she was doing her work." Marty says Oliaei's story is emblematic of institutional mission drift, with the MPCA increasingly aligning itself with polluters—or, in the agency jargon, "stakeholders"—rather than the general public. By way of example, he cites the well publicized case of biologist Tyrone Hayes, who was "dis-invited" by Commissioner Corrigan from giving the keynote address at an MPCA conference in 2004. The reason, in the view of Marty and other critics, was that Hayes might offend the state's powerful agriculture industry since Hayes's research has suggested a link between the popular herbicide atrazine and frog abnormalities.

At the MPCA, opinions about Oliaei are expressed more guardedly. Given the agency's evident willingness to issue reprimands for anyone talking out of turn, that is understandable. But the tensions between management and scientists over PFC research extended beyond Oliaei. That contentiousness is evident in a series of internal exchanges as Oliaei's tenure at the agency was drawing to a close. In one such e-mail from last fall, Don Kriens, an MPCA engineer who has worked closely with Oliaei, struck an unusually feisty and non-bureaucratic tone in response to a supervisor who questioned the research protocols Oliaei and Kriens employed in the fish sampling work on the Mississippi. Wrote Kriens: "I am rather offended that you find it necessary to educate me (and others) regarding work plans and conducting environmental research, and waste my time with your gibberish pontification and poor composition." Kriens later apologized for being a "bit direct" in his words. But the message seems clear: When it came to PFCs, the agency's managers and scientists often found themselves on opposite sides of the table.

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