EPA Promotes Employee Who Released Chemicals In An Agency Building

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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The Environmental Protection Agency has promoted an employee responsible for releasing chemicals inside agency property in 2014, a mishap that may have “caused long-term health problems for affected employees,” according to a public employee advocacy group.

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is suing the EPA to get them to divulge information on exactly what types of chemicals were released by an agency employee last year — an employee who has since been promoted.

“When it comes to safe handling of noxious chemicals, EPA is like the proverbial plumber with the leaky pipes,” Laura Dumais, a PEER attorney, said in a statement. “Promoting someone who caused an emergency to direct emergency response is indeed curious.”

In July 2014, EPA director Reggie Cheatham released “unidentified” chemicals while in his office in Arlington, Va., which got into the building’s ventilation system and caused at least one floor to be evacuated. Since that incident, more than 20 EPA employees still complain of “skin rashes, breathing problems, headaches, and sore throats” to this day, according to PEER.

EPA still hasn’t fully explained what happened or what sorts of chemicals were released by Cheatham last year. PEER says EPA didn’t even test the site until weeks after the chemical release occurred and has since promoted Cheatham to Office Director in EPA’s Office of Emergency Management. — the very office set up to respond to chemical spills and other emergency issues.

The irony is not lost on EPA employees who still say they are suffering from the chemical release. PEER has vowed to continue its suit against the EPA until all the relevant documents are released by the agency.

“It speaks volumes that EPA’s own employees are subjected to harmful chemical exposures and then kept in the dark about it,” Dumais said.  “When EPA managers mishandle their own environmental emergencies, this undermines their credibility in making proper and timely decisions to protect the health and safety of all Americans.”

EPA, however, argues Cheatham was using a pesticide on his office plant that was approved for indoor use. The odor from the pesticide was so bad, according to an EPA spokeswoman, that managers gave employees “the option of leaving and working from home for the remainder of the day due to the severity of the odor.”

“The EPA also relocated impacted employees until the situation was properly assessed and appropriate corrective measures taken,” the spokeswoman told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“EPA acted swiftly and appropriately to this incident,” she said. “The agency met or exceeded the workplace requirements established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As we learned more about the nature and extent of the incident, particularly the impact on agency employees, we scaled up our efforts proportionately.”

More interestingly, the building Cheatham spilled the chemicals in is being leased by EPA. The agency’s lease on the building expires in March and they have no plans to renew once it expires.

PEER’s pursuit of agency documents comes just four months after EPA workers accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic waste into Colorado’s Animas River.

A recent Interior Department review of the spill found that if EPA had used “a drill rig to bore into the mine from above” a “blowout would not have occurred.”

“It was incorrectly concluded that the water level inside the mine was at a similar elevation [six feet above the adit floor], a few feet below the top of the adit roof,” Interior reported. “This error resulted in development of a plan to open the mine in a manner that appeared to guard against blowout, but instead led directly to the failure.”

EPA did not respond to PEER’s criticism that it promoted the employee responsible for releasing chemicals in the office.

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