When federal scientists launched @AltUSNatParkService and other rogue Twitter accounts to battle the Trump administration’s censorship of climate change facts on government websites, lawyer Jeff Ruch had his work cut out for him. His legal team at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) dug into copyright research to give the public employees running these alt sites tips on how to alter official agency logos often protected by copyright law. As the rogue accounts multiplied, PEER offered free representation to those running the channels in the event they found themselves in trouble.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of PEER, where Ruch serves as executive director, and business remains brisk. (Never mind the fact that the only merchandise for sale on the organization’s website are boxer shorts emblazoned with “Undercover Activist” on the rear.) Beyond the Twittersphere, the organization supports public employees of environmental agencies—ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—determined to safeguard the integrity and public accountability that’s crucial to carrying out their missions. “We work on environmental issues, but the real core issue isn’t wetlands or climate change,” Ruch says. “It’s keeping conscientious people inside the agencies, so that they’re an important public resource. The agency, the cubicles, and field stations are our target ecosystem.”
As government scientists conduct studies and publish peer-reviewed results, they sometimes find their work brushing up against politics, their facts manipulated to serve the party line. Ruch and his legal team use insider information to help these tormented professionals persevere, providing free legal counseling and representation when necessary.
Ruch describes the classic PEER client as a junior-level biologist whose assessment of a project will make or break it. The project likely involves a multimillion-dollar deal with all kinds of political connections. If the biologist raises a red flag, her career is over; if she looks the other way and gives the project her blessing, she’ll get promoted. Ruch and his agency are just a phone call away when employees reach “that moment of conflict between conscience and career,” he says. “As far as I know, nobody else really occupies that niche.”
While Ruch and his legal colleagues at PEER offer protection to whistleblowers, they take pride in talking people out of blowing the whistle almost daily. Whistleblower litigation becomes an issue of labor law and can be lengthy and costly. It can also devolve into personal attacks and ultimately distract from the environmental concern for which a scientist may be willing to risk his or her job.
Ruch knows all this from firsthand experience. Early in his career, as an assistant in the California legislature, he himself wound up a whistleblower. He’d written a report on a proposed prison, mentioning that the prison would occupy a contaminated site but that there would be no environmental review. The speaker of the California Assembly removed that detail, which Ruch noted to a friend, who called the Los Angeles Times. Not long after (and a week before his wedding), Ruch was fired and blackballed. “The whole experience taught me how delicate a career path in public service was, and that’s something I try to carry forward,” he says.
Ruch started PEER with Jeff DeBonis, also a former public servant who voiced dissent—in his case, at the U.S. Forest Service, which he believed was overcutting trees. “These agencies, over time, have become much more politicized than they were in the good old days,” Ruch says. In PEER’s early years, he says, he saw a higher level of professional ethics and, in many instances these agencies weren’t painted red or blue. “There’s nothing political about fish and game,” he points out.
And by and large, the scientists inside these federal agencies didn’t sign up for their posts to promote an outside agenda. Ruch describes a biologist in the Forest Service who was one of the world’s experts on goshawks, which are considered an indicator species. The agency gave the biologist awards and sent him to conferences—until he published research on how goshawks need a much larger undisturbed area than previously thought. When his data were used by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups to challenge Forest Service timber sales, the agency transferred the biologist, who later left. Ruch says that this scientist would have been able to keep his job in different political circumstances.
In addition to defending federal scientists themselves, PEER also serves as a government watchdog group. At the tail end of the Bush administration, an EPA toxicologist alerted Ruch that the agency’s solid waste arm was promoting recycled play surfaces made of shredded tires. “She was astounded they weren’t doing any kind of risk assessment,” Ruch says. Tire crumb can contain lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and hydrocarbons potentially toxic to children. Yet when the Obamas moved into the White House, they installed a playground cushioned with ground-up tires for Sasha and Malia on the recommendation of the EPA. The toxicologist guided PEER toward documents showing that EPA scientists neglected to look into the chemical exposure to children and athletes playing on these surfaces.
PEER launched a public awareness campaign to force the EPA to withdraw its safety endorsements. This grabbed the attention of the associate head coach of the University of Washington’s soccer team (and public employee), Amy Griffin, who was disturbed by the high number of former students receiving diagnoses of lymphoma. With Ruch’s help, Griffin developed a list of sick soccer goalies who had spent their careers kicking the ball on turf fields and inspired several TV exposés. After President Obama caught one of the reports on ESPN, he called the EPA. In February 2016, the administration directed the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the EPA to study the human health and eco-impacts of shredded tires in playgrounds and sports fields. “You can see the evolution of an issue and how different employees coming in at different times make cumulative contributions,” Ruch says.
In preparation for the impending political maelstrom, Ruch is expanding the PEER team by organizing retirees of environmental agencies, who can act as public spokespeople without fear of retaliation. Ruch notes that these veterans’ historical knowledge of environmental and agency issues will provide invaluable guidance, particularly to employees working under newly tapped administrators (such as at the EPA) who appear hostile to the very missions they are meant to serve.
The PEER lawyers are also pulling together legal packets on federal employee reductions. The Trump administration has outlined cutting chunks of the federal workforce, including up to 3,000 positions at the EPA. Should it come to that, lawyers at PEER will be well positioned to represent employees facing potential layoffs and to arm other lawyers who will join them in their fight.
In addition, Ruch is readying his colleagues for a flood of requests to pull suppressed information hidden in public documents. They typically file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit once a month; Ruch expects that number to spike. He says FOIA has become a safe way of whistleblowing. Rather than having employees come forward with sensitive documents, they point the PEER team to where the documents can be found so that the group can act “as a transparency agent,” Ruch says.
For now, the PEER team is standing by the phones. “It’s really an honor to work with people from these agencies,” Ruch says. As for the callers, hopefully they’ll find some comfort in Ruch’s spirited approach to his mission. “In many instances, particularly in FOIA cases where you’re suing an agency that’s denying the existence of a document that you have—that’s good, clean fun,” he says.
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