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

As Oliaei tells it, that is true in more than the purely figurative sense. When she began work at the MPCA, she was involved in the rule-making for regulating air toxics. In those days, she says, scientists, managers, and environmental advocates would often sit together at one side of the conference tables, with industry representatives seated on the opposite side. Over the years, according to Oliaei, the seating arrangements for such meetings seemed to change; the scientists found themselves pushed to the margins of the room. "In the beginning, we were working together with the support of the mangers and the commissioner and the recommendations of the environmental groups in order to protect the public from industry emissions," Oliaei observes. "In the last four years, it's totally different."

Paul Hoff, the supervisor who issued Oliaei's reprimand, is circumspect when discussing his former subordinate. "I think she was very passionate about this subject matter. She certainly brought a lot of energy to the science," he says. "Beyond that, I guess I can't really comment further. We have a lot of other good scientists in the agency and we intend to fill her position quickly. And we are committed to continuing this investigation."

By contrast, Oliaei has consistently refused to soft-pedal her conflicts with the agency. It's not hard to imagine how that dynamic helped fuel the split. In testimony to the legislature, e-mails to supervisors, and statements to the media, Oliaei has pressed her case with unusual candor. In early February, the MPCA issued a release announcing that Oliaei had "settled" with the agency—an announcement that coincided with much bigger news of the day: President Bush's visit to Minnesota, where he gave a speech about technology innovation to an audience of 3M employees. In response, Oliaei fired off a letter to fellow MPCA employees that same day. She wrote that she resigned only because she figured the MPCA "would likely fire me if I continued to speak out about the issue." She went on to quote a former 3M chemist who characterized PFOS as "the most insidious pollutant since PCB."

At the MPCA, senior managers now insist that nothing will be lost with Oliaei's departure. Her former boss, Mike Sandusky, says the agency expects to spend about $100,000 on PFC research this year. He estimates that some 25 employees at the MPCA and other state agencies are working on the issue. Asked whether the MPCA would follow the recommendations outlined in Oliaei's report to the Senate, however, Sandusky balks. As of early March, he had not yet read Oliaei's report. He was particularly noncommittal about Oliaei's top recommendation, that the MPCA initiate an extensive investigation into the presence of PFCs in the sediments of Lake Pepin, where Oliaei suspects decades of PFC discharge have accumulated.

In her view, Lake Pepin is the single most critical area of research. If those suspicions are borne out, it might necessitate an extensive (and extremely expensive) dredging and decontamination of sediments. Oliaei likens the scenario to the highly contentious, EPA-mandated cleanup of the Hudson River in New York, which was fouled by PCBs dumped by General Electric. For his part, Sandusky does not care to even speculate about such a prospect. "We are taking a very reasoned, step-wise approach to how we're going to spend money," he says.

To Oliaei, that "step-wise approach" sounds like a promise of more foot-dragging. Why, she asks, would the agency pay to get rid of her if there was a sincere interest in pursuing her research? For that reason, she hopes to find another entity to underwrite her inquiries into PFCs in Minnesota. She's not sure what institution or agency might be willing to fund the undertaking. And, despite her cash settlement, she is worried about practical and financial matters. Will she still be able to afford her home in the St. Paul suburb of North Oaks? She doesn't think so—not with the out-of-pocket costs to maintain her health insurance and the hefty tuition bills racked up by her two college-age sons. "When they forced me to sign the settlement, I cried. I felt like a woman who had gone through three years of labor and finally given birth. But my child—my research—is in the hands of people not qualified to take care of it," she says. "I feel like a mother who lost her baby." 

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