Triggered by a whistleblower, another NPS cloud of scandal descends on Point Reyes National Seashore .
The National Parks Foundation (NPF) website, under the heading ‘Saving the Ecological Sanctuary of an Estuary,’ talks about their contribution to the $4 million contract to remove the last traces of the historic oyster farm, shut down NPS and Interior Secretary Salazar in 2014. The NPF’s $2 million contribution to the contract was to help make the Drakes Estero restoration a ‘signature project’ for the Park Centennial. It is indeed a signature project, a $4 million dollar no-bid contract with essentially no effort or effective oversight to insure that the work was performed according to acceptable standards. The NPS oyster rack removal is yet another poster child for just-retired Director Jon Jarvis’ sad legacy of scandal, ineffective management and ethical myopia that marked his tenure as head of the Park Service
Jarvis, until 2009 served as head of NPS Western Region, was himself largely responsible for much of the scientific misconduct and coverup summarized in Senator Feinstein’s March 2012 letter to Interior Secretary Salazar: “I am frankly stunned that after all the controversy over past abuse of science on this issue, Park Service employees would feel emboldened to once again fabricate the science in building a case against the oyster farm. I can only attribute this conduct to an unwavering bias against the oyster farm and historic ranches.”
The whole Estero story, which the Times covered extensively, re-emerged as the result of a whistleblower who has provided information that brings into question the last decade of NPS science and management of the Drake’s Estero. This ongoing story emerged shortly before Christmas.
The Russian River Times was approached by Matt Zugsberger, a professional diver and former Marine with almost 17 years of underwater experience, who provided the image shown below. His experience ranges from Hurricane Katrina repairs to decommissioning the PG&E Hunter’s Point power station, with clients ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers to the U.S. Coast Guard, and many others. Zugsberger relayed how he expressed significant safety and environmental concern, first to the subcontractor, then to NPS, for failure to follow required environmental and safety standards. After the subcontractor retaliated against him, refusing to provide promised support then ultimately firing him, he filed for whistleblower protection.
Zugsberger has shown the Times documents where OSHA (Occupations Safety and Hazards Agency) have already concluded there were serious violations of safety procedures by the contractor. OSHA and other agencies have ongoing investigations into Zugsberger’s allegations.
Pulling Oyster Racks and Pilings in Drakes Estero
Photo showing several of the safety and environmental violations documented in Zugsberger’s complaints, prepared from review of the documents available on the Point Reyes National Seashore website, as well as experience and documentation on similar jobs for Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers. He can be seen in the water to the right of the barge. Photo: National Parks Foundation. (use claimed under 17 US C0de 107)
Zugsberger provided a list, detailing all of the safety and environmental violations that he observed and reported to NPS, DOI Inspector General and others. Several of these are shown in the image above.
1. No required containment area on barge to prevent run-off and spillage of invasive species and contaminated mud into the estero. Note water draining from bucket spilling on deck and washing overboard.
2. Excavator bucket repeatedly dragged marine growth and attached sediment against the edge and floor of the barge.
3. Diver in pinch-point hazard (could be trapped between load or bucket and barge).
4. Lack of proper safety equipment, e.g. no hardhat on excavator operator, no proper life jackets, no personnel protection equipment to prevent exposure to toxic materials in wood and bottom sediment.
Prior to commencing work, Zugsberger prepared a Safe Practices Operations Manual, submitted to the contractor via e-mail on 10 July 2016 and subsequently hand-delivered to NPS officials. The purpose of this manual was to fulfill mandatory safety requirements. The many violations of this Manual and NPS documents are set forth in the list he provided. In his first interview with the Russian River Times, he described what greeted him on the first day of the job, using language far more appropriate to his former Marine Corps background than a community newspaper. There were none of the items common to his extensive prior job experience for what met him: “no proper safety crew, no group briefings on job plan, no group briefings on threatened and endangered species” or many of the items called for in the Safe Practices Manual or Park Service documents.
Zugsberger noted that the requirement in the NPS 15 April 2015 Project Description somewhat resemble programs for underwater debris removal and piling jobs he worked on with Coast Guard and private contractors. The original NPS documents for this project called for multiple crews and barges and hazardous waste containment on the barges and on shore. The documents are specific about handling of hazmat materials (coming under hazardous material regulations) and other contaminated materials such as sediment with heavy metals and creosote, removed chemically-treated pilings and invasive species. He states that “if the contractor’s work performance was held to compliance with even the minimal 2015 NPS plans, the NPS official responsible should have shut the job down after the first week”. Instead, NPS allowed the contractor to erode and evade essentially all responsibility for environmental and safety compliance.
This story dates back to early 2006, when then-Point Reyes Superintendent Neubacher, who recently retired as Superintendent of Yosemite National Park, reported to Jon Jarvis, then-Western Regional Superintendent and recently retired NPS Director. They launched a campaign to eliminate Drakes Bay Oyster Company and discredit its owners, the Lunny family They worked with Gordon Bennett, a former Sierra Club official (subsequently fired) who wrote in a May/June 2006 Sierra Club publication, alleging that the oyster company was disturbing harbor seals, poisoning the estuary, destroying eelgrass, spreading invasive species, violating its permits and a host of allegations that were all subsequently discredited. Now a decade later, according to Zugsberger, NPS and its allies may well be guilty of the very environmental sins of which they accused the Lunnys.
Like the 2006 Sierra Club accusations, the recent NPF website article is another example of the Park Service and its allies rewriting history to eradicate all traces of the oyster farm and their campaign to close it down. Reading the NPF documents and studying their video, clearly designed to imply that the oyster racks were continuing to do major harm to the estero, one would have no idea that the National Academy of Sciences had concluded that there was no evidence of any significant impact from the oyster operation and held that NPS had knowingly distorted data: Neither would the NPF reader be aware that Will Shafroth, now president of the NPF, was fully involved in the battle over NPS scientific misconduct from his service as Department of the Interior (DOI) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife & Parks.
Times readers may find it hard to believe that there can be such lack of oversight and compliance by the Park Service, but it is an all-too-common NPS trait. The Times spoke with a former NPS senior investigator. He stated that there is little uniformity in NPS management practices, matters being largely left up to superintendents. He cited the recent case of the Effigy Mound National Park where, despite nearly a decade of whistleblowing and repeated complaints to the DOI IG, well over $3 million was spent with no meaningful oversight.
The NPS investigator with whom we spoke said that one characteristic of these cases is that they are buried because DOI IG simply refers the issue back to NPS for self-investigation, which is what happened on multiple occasions at Effigy Mound. The same chain of events took place at Point Reyes National Seashore with Zugsberger’s complaint about the current work being referred back to NPS for self-investigation, despite a decade of multiple complaints to NPS, DOI IG and others about Drakes Estero.
With the latest revelations of NPS failures in the Estero, the story has come full circle back to Jarvis. The real question that remains is that with harassment scandals, contracting fiascos and ethical lapses, how deep and wide has the NPS rot actually spread, and what will it take to root it out?