by Caroline Snyder

EPA did not take kindly to a two-page commentary by microbiologist David Lewis published by the British science journal Nature (“EPA Science: Casualty of Election Politics.” Nature. 1996. 381:731-732). In it, Lewis talked about how poor science behind many of EPA's regulations stand to harm public health and the environment, rather than protect. Having worked at EPA's research laboratory in Athens, GA for over 30 years, Lewis has a wealth of first-hand knowledge on the subject.

In the early 1990's, Lewis led a team of researchers from Washington University Medical School and Loma Linda University's School of Dentistry, which discovered that the AIDS virus could survive disinfection in dental equipment. The findings, which Lewis published in Lancet and Nature Medicine, led to new heat-sterilization standards for dentistry worldwide.

When Nature published a second article by Lewis, which was critical of EPA's sludge rule (Lewis, DL, et al. 1999. “Influence of environmental changes on degradation of chiral pollutants in soils.” Nature. 401:898-901), the agency removed his director, Dr. Rosemarie Russo, for approving the research publication.

Based on ethics rules requiring “reasonably prominent” disclaimers, Washington EPA officials retaliated by accusing Lewis of violating ethics rules. The print size Nature used for his disclaimer, saying he was not speaking for EPA policy, was smaller than that used in the body of the article. Lewis, of course, had no way of knowing what sizes of print the journal would use for different parts of his article. Department of Labor investigators found that EPA had applied its ethics rules in a discriminatory manner, and later determined that EPA also denied his promotion in a discriminatory manner.

Although the Labor Department ruled in his favor in these cases, EPA demanded that he resign by age 55 (May 28, 2003) for criticizing the Agency's policies. EPA's Office of General Counsel (OGC) and the National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) also took Lewis's supervision out of the hands of his local managers. Everything with his name associated with it had be approved by headquarters.

In a settlement agreement dated October 7, 1998, EPA offered Lewis an opportunity to conduct research at the University of Georgia for up to four years under an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment if he would agree to resign after it was over. The purpose of the IPA, according to his IPA Assignment Agreements, was for him to apply his research on pathogens in dental or medical devices to EPA's mission.

EPA's offer posed no financial or career benefit to Lewis. The Agency paid him no money and refused to grant him the promotion he had been unfairly denied. They did pay $25,000 in attorney fees; however, Lewis's attorney had taken the case on contingency. Lewis, therefore, did not personally owe attorney fees. Furthermore, Dr. Russo told Lewis that she would approve an IPA assignment without a settlement agreement, as she had done for many others at the Athens laboratory.

Although Lewis had nothing to gain financially from EPA's offer, he had everything to lose in terms of why he went to work for EPA in the first place. His life's work has been protecting public health and the environment. He was the only scientist at EPA who would listen when several mothers and fathers argued that sewage sludge, which EPA approved as a cheap fertilizer, had taken the lives of their children. Hundreds more across the country were sick with the same illnesses that even appeared to affect farm animals and family pets.

To keep his job, Lewis would have had to turn his back on sick people and grief-stricken mothers and fathers who were being taxed to pay his government salary. For anyone with any heart or conscience, Lewis said, there was really no other honorable choice than to fold under EPA's pressure to resign. EPA had dead-ended his career and going to the University of Georgia was the only way he could continue his research on pathogens in sludge. He could have a government job, or do it, but not both.

Broken agreement What Lewis did not know was that EPA did not plan to let him continue his work on sludge at the University of Georgia. What he thought would be four years of unhampered research turned into an unending battle against the combined efforts of EPA, Synagro Technologies, Inc, and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) to stop his research on sludge. Synagro, based out of Houston, TX, is the leading sludge company and the WEF is a national trade association for the sludge industry.

Both Synagro and the WEF appealed directly to EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman and other top EPA officials to withdraw EPA's support for Lewis's research. EPA was all too happy to work with the sludge industry and go after Lewis. At least one EPA official in the Office of Water went so far as to publicly distribute Synagro materials attacking Lewis's credibility. On another occasion, he solicited help from Synagro in writing a negative internal EPA peer-review of Lewis's research on sludge.

First documented cases Overcoming strong opposition from EPA and the sludge industry, Lewis' research on sludge was recently published in a British medical journal (“Interactions of pathogens and irritant chemicals in land-applied sewage sludges (biosolids)” D. L. Lewis, et al BMC Public Health 2002, 2:11 (28 Jun 2002) http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/2/11). The Journal of Environmental Science & Technology also featured the research in a 7-page article in their July 1, 2002 issue. This is the first time illnesses and deaths among residents exposed to sewage sludge have been documented in the medical and scientific literature. Simultaneously, the National Academy of Sciences released a report on July 3 citing Lewis work and supporting the science issues he raised.

Altogether, Lewis's research on sludge prompted two hearings by the full Committee on Science in the U.S. House of Representatives, an EPA Office of Inspector General audit of the EPA's mishandling of science behind the 503 Sludge Rule, and an earlier-than-planned review of that science by the National Academy of Sciences.

Last May, the President of the United States signed the No Fear Act, which was intended to better protect federal employees from discrimination and retaliation. This legislation was drafted by the Science and Judiciary Committees partly as a result of the hearings into EPA's retaliations against Lewis and his director for his publications in Nature.

Responding to a request from Lewis's attorney that he be allowed to stay at EPA, the Agency's Office of General Counsel replied on June 11, 2002, stating “should Dr. Lewis refuse to resign or retire no later than May 28, 2003, the Agency will unilaterally effect his resignation on that date.”

Two weeks after receiving this letter, Lewis was invited to brief China's Ministers of Public Health, the Environment, and Agriculture in mid-October on his sludge research. When forwarding the invitation to EPA managers, Lewis questioned how he should explain to Communist China's leaders that he is being terminated for criticizing government policies and cannot continue his EPA research.

BLO fecit 20020804