Critical information withheld from US Army Corps of Engineers permit applications and NEPA documents.
There are new developments in the Russian River Times ongoing investigation of National Park Service (NPS) misconduct in Drakes Estero.
After their controversial decade-long battle to close a local oyster farm, NPS began a program to remove the historical oyster racks to achieve ‘wilderness.’ In late 2015, one of the first steps was to complete the Drakes Estero Restoration Project preliminary engineering studies. Among other tasks, that study included testing removal methods for oyster rack pilings.
Engineering study and permit applications started with no toxicity tests At the same time, NPS also began to obtain required Clean Water Act and other permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers as well as approvals from other State and Federal agencies. While the permitting process unfolded, NPS then decided to commission an independent ‘Environmental Site Assessment Report’, whose purpose was to “…evaluate potential environmental liabilities.” The Report concluded that there were long term risks from extremely high concentrations of hazardous materials in the oyster rack’s structure which leach into sediments. This key report, heretofore unreleased, was not posted with other project documents on the NPS web site. It was uncovered in a recent FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, as part of the RR Times coverage of multiple claims against NPS made by whistleblower Matt Zugsberger, working as the diver for a project subcontractor.
Results of toxicity test confirm whistleblower’s claims of exposure to toxics In the past several months, Zugsberger’s claims, one-by-one, have been substantiated and upheld. His initial claims of safety and pay violations in the $4.5 million Drakes Estero ‘restoration’ project were upheld by the issuance of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations against the NPS project and its contractors and a Labor Department ruling requiring shorted back wages to be paid.
The newly released NPS Report validates the whistleblower’s claims of toxic waste mismanagement which caused toxic material to be released into the Estero and caused Zugsberger to sustain chemical burns on his lower body. The Environmental Site Assessment report contains test results show very high levels of toxic wood preservative materials. The results classify the oyster rack material as hazardous waste. The reported level of toxicity constitutes a ‘REC’ or… “Recognized Environmental Condition”, defined by the national standards for a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment as “…the presence or likely presence of any hazardous substances ior petroleum products in, on, or at a property (1) due to any release to the environment (2) under conditions indicative of a release to the environment or (3) under conditions that impose a material threat of future release to the environment.”
The report includes photographs of an NPS employee, (identified in the text of the report NPS Chief Scientist at Point Reyes, Dr. Ben Becker, who served as Project Manager) taking samples from the racks on 8 December 2016, as well as an image of the cresosote film on the surface of the water. Despite the same Environmental Site Assessment Report, Dr. Becker, in an NPS 25 January 2016 Environmental Screening Form for the project, ignored report findings and claimed to have run NOAA fisheries models that showed the oyster rack material was safe.
Park Superintendent signs critical NEPA filing: No mention of toxics A month later, NPS Seashore Superintendent, Cicely Muldoon, approved the 25 February 2016 NEPA Categorical Exclusion form in which reference to the toxic materials were excluded. This misleading NEPA document was submitted to US Army Corps of Engineers and other State and Federal agencies. Records obtained from specific FOIA requests to the Corps reveal that NPS did not submit any reports documenting toxic material and failed to disclose their existence in the permit applications, as required by the permitting process.
NPS pattern of withholding critical data and hiding reports. This type of NPS malfeasance repeats a pattern in Drakes Estero that has done huge economic damage not only to the local community, but has cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in ‘studies’, which, when they fail to support policy decisions, are suppressed. Prime examples of this irresponsible conduct can be found in the earlier RR Times coverage, including abandonment of a multi-million dollar Environmental Impact Statement which substituted sounds of souped up 2-stroke jet skis for 20 horsepower, 4-stroke outboards on the oyster boats and concealment of three years of exculpatory ‘hidden camera’ photographs which showed no seal disturbances or Marine Mammal Act violations by the oyster company, despite NPS fabricated claims to the contrary. The photos were withheld from a National Academy of Sciences investigation conducted at the request of Senator Feinstein, who was concerned about NPS misuse of science.
Some of the same NPS personnel who today suppress reports about toxic materials were previously censured in the findings of Secretarial-ordered investigation of concealment of secret spy cameras installed by Point Reyes staff. Then and now, NPS does not want the citizens of West Marin, the Bay Area, the State or the rest of the Nation to know what they are doing or how NPS is conducting itself.
NPS coverup of toxic dumping only revealed after State of Arizona suit. Concealment of illegal acts is unfortunately common at NPS. In 1985, divers discovered that worn out toxic lead acid batteries were routinely being dumped into the Colorado River water at Glen Canyon by Del Web employees, who were contracted to run the Glen Canyon marina. NPS finally put Del Web on notice in 1988. The matter was only resolved after word of the dumping leaked out and the Arizona State Attorney General filed civil and criminal charges, later settled by guilty pleas to a felony charge by Del Web corporation, and their successor ARA, along with combined fines of well over a million dollars.
Retired NPS investigator Paul Berkowitz, author of two books detailing NPS misconduct, revealed that State investigators documented claims of obstruction, lying, destroying evidence and pressuring subordinate staff by NPS management.
During its 2016 centennial year, NPS celebration was overshadowed by multiple Congressional Oversight hearings and other congressional inquiries on sexual harassment and toxic work environments. In addition, revelations of widespread destruction of Indian artifacts in illegal construction projects were unearthed by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) Together, these investigations documented a massive failure of NPS management under then-NPS Director Jon Jarvis, himself the subject of an ethics scandal.
Grand Canyon sexual harassment scandal first reported to NPS in 2004. NPS investigator Berkowitz, back in 2004 and again in 2006, was responsible for the first reports of the Grand Canyon sexual harassment and toxic work environments to senior NPS management and Department of the Interior Inspector General (IG) , detailing the need for a fully independent DOI investigation. In 2014 thirteen current and former NPS employees came forward and co-signed a complaint sent directly to the Secretary of the Interior. The resulting IG investigation confirmed the claims and accusations which emboldened others in Yellowstone, Yosemite and Canaveral National Seashore to report litany of abuse, leading to 2016 hearings by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that darkened the Park Centennial celebrations.
Is this time different? Matt Zugsberger, the whistleblower in the NPS Drakes Estero restoration project, followed the NPS chain of command with his complaints. He was immediately fired. As a result, he pursued the same course of action which led to the 2016 House Oversight hearings, taking his case directly to the Secretary of the Interior. The important point is that without whistleblowers like Zugsberger and the Grand Canyon 13, bringing matters to the attention of Congress and the public, there is virtually no hope of meaningful reform to a corrupt and dysfunctional NPS management.
Zugsberger charged NPS with safety violations and was upheld. He charged them with cheating worker pay and the Department of Labor upheld his claim. He also charged NPS with polluting Drakes Estero and mismanaging toxic materials. NPS documents now show that he was correct. It remains to be seen if his revelations and those of other NPS whistleblowers will finally have a lasting effect and eventually force Congress to save our National Parks from NPS corrupt, venial and profligate management.