At EPA, Unions Break From Management
By Christopher Lee
Unions at the Environmental Protection Agency have pulled out of a long-standing partnership with management, saying Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has failed to deal in good faith on issues such as scientific integrity and job evaluations.
In a Feb. 29 letter to Johnson, 19 union leaders, who represent 10,000 EPA employees, complained that he and other top managers have ignored the advice of unionized workers and the agency's own principles of scientific integrity. They cited issues that include fluoride drinking-water standards, a California bid to limit greenhouse gases, and mercury emissions from power plants.
The agency's scientific-integrity principles, jointly developed by unions and managers during the Clinton administration, call for employees to ensure that their scientific work is of the highest integrity, and to represent it fairly, acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others and avoid financial conflicts.
"EPA boasts of the principles of scientific integrity before the Congress and the public as an example of EPA's dedication to using only good science in its decision making, but refuses to agree to an adjudication process for resolving disputes arising from alleged violations," the union leaders wrote.
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said Johnson "has and will continue to value the expertise and advice of his staff at all levels. The administrator is faced, when given the facts and the law, with making some difficult decisions.... He takes the science very seriously, and he makes the decisions based on the science within the bounds of the law."
The Bush administration drew criticism in December when Johnson, a 27-year veteran of the agency, denied California's petition to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the EPA's legal and technical staffs. Johnson has said that higher fuel economy standards and increased renewable fuel requirements that President Bush signed into law last year will do more to address global warming than "a confusing patchwork of state rules."
Last month, a federal appeals court threw out the EPA's approach to limiting mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, ruling that agency officials had followed their own desires rather than the law in imposing new standards that were favorable to plant owners.
J. William Hirzy, executive vice president of Chapter 280 of the National Treasury Employees Union, one of the union locals that sent the letter, said there have been other internal fights over the dangers of fluoride in drinking water and certain ingredients in pesticides.
"It's not so much that we're looking for influence over policy decisions. We're looking to have our science recognized," said Hirzy, a senior scientist in EPA's risk assessment division who emphasized that he was speaking as a union official.
Created during the Clinton administration, the EPA's Labor-Management Partnership Council, like its counterparts in other agencies, is intended to head off internal disputes and delays by discussing issues such as changes in work schedules and the introduction of new technology before final decisions are made. Bush dissolved the agency councils by executive order in 2001, but EPA officials maintained a working relationship with the unions.
The letter announcing the unions' withdrawal cites a lack of union input on the design of a performance appraisal system and a failure to engage unions before implementing changes in work rules.
"It's gotten worse than ever in terms of the agency just doing unilateral decision-making," Hirzy said. "We're tired of it."