(Beyond Pesticides, July 3, 2007) A scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has filed a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court, arguing that he was first not allowed to share his research with a legislative panel, and then fired for it. Hydrologist Paul Wotzka, who worked for the state Agriculture Department for sixteen years before leaving to join MPCA in October, had been slated to testify about the rise in atrazine levels in Whitewater State Park, which have exceeded recommended levels for several area species. Atrazine, which has been linked to cancer, birth defects, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption and a variety of other health and environmental effects and has been banned by the European Union, is a widely used agricultural herbicide.. Mr. Wotzka said in his lawsuit, as well as publicly, that this rise in atrazine in Minnesota waterways was due to increased row-crop agriculture in the region and the the Agriculture Department’s support of corn for ethanol.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Wotzka is asking for $75,000 and to return to his position with MPCA. He claims that he was put on investigative leave, “related to missing data that is property of the State of Minnesota.” The investigative leave led to his dismissal on May 8, and the letter announcing it likewise asserted that he had diverted mail from his old office to MPCA and destroyed data.
Mr. Wotzka had planned to testify that the Department of Agriculture “misrepresented its own data by claiming that the atrazine concentrations in Minnestota’s rivers and streams were in compliance with current water quality standards,” rather than the “significant risk to Minnesota’s environmental health,” as he sees them. He was also planning to claim that the state’s “continuing support of corn for ethanol was a major contributing factor to increasing atrazine and nitrate concentrations in Minnesota.”
Some legislators are angry over Mr. Wotzka’s treatement. Representative Ken Tschumper (DFL-La Crescent) accused Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty of “stonewalling scientific review” of the research. “They do not want the public to know what the research is indicating,” he said. Saying the agribusiness community “went through the roof” at the prospect of transferring pesticide regulation from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health, he continued, “Atrazine is the most widely used pesticide in this country. Half of the corn and soybean acres have atrazine applied to them. This is a big deal.” In addition to Mr. Wotzka’s lawsuit, Rep.Tschumper promised, “For my part, I’m going to be talking to our leadership in the House and the various committee members and see if we can’t conduct our own investigation, I can tell you that.”
This is the latest in what is becoming a pattern of data suppression, particularly in cases when the chemical in question is as high-profile as atrazine. For example, Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D., University of California-Berkeley professor and endocrinologist, was uninvited from speaking to the MPCA about his research in atrazine’s interference with frogs’ sexual development. He also struggled with funding being withheld and pressure from industry to stop the research. Representative Jean Wagenius (DFL-Minneapolis) said, “When it comes to protection, industry is being protected and the public is not, especially in the case of atrazine.”