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'He's either loved or reviled'

EPA whistle-blower stands up to agency

Published May 31, 2005 at midnight

As the Bush administration pushes ever harder for more oil and gas drilling in Colorado and the West, a lone government worker in Denver is pushing back.

Weston Wilson, a longtime scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office downtown, went public last fall with criticism of an EPA study that gave the go-ahead to a drilling technique that some think poses a risk to groundwater.

He's remained outspoken since, quoted by national media and championed by environmental groups as a courageous bureaucrat bucking his political bosses. In March, his whistle-blowing led the EPA's inspector general to open an investigation.

At the same time, Wilson has been hammered by industry representatives who say his objections are off-base and politically motivated, noting a dearth of evidence that the kind of drilling technique in question has ever polluted groundwater.

But Wilson, 59, isn't backing off, criticizing the EPA for what he sees as elevating the desires of the oil and gas industry above the protection of people and the environment.

"I think the agency's acted egregiously," Wilson said in a recent interview. "It's not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the public health."

Wilson's protests are the latest - and loudest - in a career marked by a fearless, some would say stubborn, tendency to stand up to EPA managers, outside agencies and industrial interests if he thinks environmental protections are being set aside for other priorities.

A fixture at Denver's regional EPA office for 31 years, Wilson's most significant role locally might have been his work on a damning analysis of Two Forks Dam, which would have drowned 20 miles of Cheesman Canyon on the South Platte River to store water for the metro area.

Wilson's examination of alternatives to Two Forks was part of a wider analysis of the $550 million project but was key in leading the EPA to veto the project in 1990.

"Wes is a bit of an institution here. People know him, and he's either loved or reviled by people, depending on whose side of the fence (they're) on," said colleague Brad Crowder, who works alongside Wilson in the EPA unit that reviews the impacts of water projects, highway expansions and oil drilling on the environment.

Head to head with industry

Wilson's condemnation of the EPA's oil and gas study has thrown a wrench into years of effort by the industry to ensure the drilling method in question remains free from regulation under the nation's clean water laws.

The matter is important in Colorado, where oil and gas drilling is hitting record levels. State regulators anticipate issuing 3,600 oil and natural gas permits in 2005 - far beyond the previous record of 2,917 in 2004.

Wilson's concern applies mostly to areas where industry draws methane gas from underground coal beds using a method called hydraulic fracturing. The technique makes it easier to capture gas from hard- to-reach deposits by pumping liquids in the ground at high pressure.

Those fluids, some of which contain toxic materials such as acids, benzene, formaldehyde and other compounds, open up cracks in gas-bearing rocks, coaxing more of the fossil fuel from the ground.

Wilson, who has degrees from the University of Arizona in geological engineering and water resources administration, argues that hydraulic fracturing needs to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and said the EPA's study finding that the method poses "little or no threat" of contaminating underground drinking water supplies was "unsupportable."

This is no small battle. One of the companies that has long fought regulation of hydraulic fracturing is Halliburton, run by Dick Cheney before he became vice president under George W. Bush.

After taking office, Cheney was at the forefront of developing a national energy policy that environmental groups and others have criticized as leaning heavily on traditional industries, such as oil and gas, with less attention paid to emerging, cleaner energy alternatives.

The administration's energy policy, released in 2001, cited the importance of hydraulic fracturing, but - according to a lengthy report in the Los Angeles Times last fall - never included concerns about the technique that had been raised by some scientists at the EPA.

When the EPA completed a long- awaited study on the issue last June, Wilson was unable to stomach what he believed were serious shortcomings in the effort, and he wrestled with the idea of taking his critique public. Several colleagues concurred with his views but weren't prepared to say it out loud, he said.

Letter sent to Capitol Hill

In October, after much deliberation, Wilson sent a letter to both U.S. senators from Colorado, Republicans Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, as well as U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat. The letter alerted the trio to an EPA study that had "caused me and several of my peers at EPA great concern."

In his letter, Wilson invoked "the protections under the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Whistleblowers Protection Act should EPA retaliate against me as a result of speaking with you or other members of Congress or speaking to the press or the public regarding this matter."

Attached to the letter was an 18-page technical analysis titled "EPA Allows Hazardous Fluids to be Injected into Ground Water." In it, Wilson laid out an eight-point argument citing alleged flaws in the study and its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing poses no threat to groundwater.

Among his criticisms: EPA cut the study short, without field investigations; the agency failed to investigate the movement of unwanted methane gas into drinking-water supplies as a result of hydraulic fracturing; and five members of the seven-person panel that conducted the study either worked for the oil and gas industry or formerly did so.

EPA officials in Washington, D.C., stand by the study. In repeated public statements, a spokeswoman has reaffirmed its findings and said none of Wilson's concerns would lead the agency to a different conclusion.

Industry representatives concur, arguing that ample evidence has shown hydraulic fracturing to be safe. Some said Wilson was politically motivated in his criticism, noting that his letter was issued just weeks before last November's presidential election - timing Wilson said was coincidental.

"(This technique) is done at thousands of operations per year; there's been lots of groundwater sampling and well-water sampling to verify the safety of the technique," said Greg Schnacke, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

"It's our view that this issue has been way overblown as far as any threat to humans."

Record of speaking his mind

Wilson's colleagues aren't surprised the man described as "a populist" inside the agency decided to blow the whistle on the drilling issue.

Wilson has never been afraid to speak his mind within the EPA. Taking this case public, colleagues said, was simply an extension of Wilson's no-nonsense approach.

"He tends to be very outspoken and may often not be as politically sensitive as management would want him to be in how he phrases things," Crowder said. "He speaks bluntly and plainly."

In one case in 2002, the head of Montana's oil and gas board wrote to the EPA's top boss in Denver, asking him to leave Wilson out of meetings about coal-bed methane gas projects in the state, calling him disruptive and criticizing him for not being a team player.

Wilson said he was arguing that drilling firms should be prohibited from dumping their salty wastewater into nearby rivers - a position shared by an American Indian tribe and an activist group in the region.

One of Wilson's most significant feats came in the late 1990s, when he led an EPA team evaluating the impacts of a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park. The New World gold mine, drawing scrutiny from environmentalists worldwide, would have had the right to dump mining waste on adjoining federal forest lands.

Wilson proposed a rarely used option for the project: Don't do it. In government parlance, he pushed for the "no action" alternative for the EPA's environmental analysis, which would nix construction of the mine outright. His idea was greeted favorably throughout the EPA's chain of command and all the way to Washington, D.C.

In the end, Congress agreed to pay the company $65 million for its land and mineral rights, and the mine was never built.

Wilson can't simply be pigeonholed as an obnoxious or obstructionist bureaucrat. In 2003, he was honored with the "Four C's Award" by the head of the Bureau of Land Management - Bush-appointed Kathleen Clark - for his analysis of how coal-bed methane development in Montana and Wyoming could affect water quality.

The award recognizes federal employees for their "consultation, cooperation and communication (for) conservation" - a phrase coined by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, another Bush appointee often criticized by environmentalists for policies favorable to industry.

Wilson had an early start in a career of speaking out. During the Vietnam War, he became only the second Army officer ever granted conscientious objector status, he said, because of his opposition to warfare.

The military sent him to Vietnam anyway but kept him out of combat. Instead, he supervised a limestone quarry for material to build tank roads in the Mekong Delta.

Outside his agency work, he serves with Engineers Without Borders USA, a group that matches up university students with nongovernmental organizations in Third World countries.

'Won't be any repercussions'

So far, EPA managers have left Wilson alone, despite his whistle- blowing. Some inside the agency and environmentalists who follow it think that with all the attention Wilson has received for speaking out, EPA managers are smart enough not to make him a martyr - and draw media scrutiny - by taking action against him.

On the other hand, Wilson and others inside the agency say that Wilson was forced into a back-seat role several years ago, since the early days of the Bush administration in 2001. Their evidence: Supervisors no longer assign Wilson to environmental analyses on the highest-profile projects, projects he used to be given as a matter of course because of his thoroughness and knowledge, colleagues say.

Wilson's supervisor, Larry Svoboda, denies anything has changed for Wilson and his work.

"He still has the same responsibilities he's always had," Svoboda said.

"There won't be any repercussions (against Wilson) one way or another," Svoboda said. "Wes has been at this for a long time, he feels very strongly about the work he does and the importance of it, and I think people respect that."

Although he's eligible for retirement, Wilson said he has no immediate plans to go away, figuring he can contribute, even as the EPA has become an agency that he thinks has lost sight of its mission to protect the environment under a Bush administration that he says has put industry's needs ahead of the public.

"You're seeing a rapid transfer of public land resources from the public interest to private interests," Wilson said. "At EPA, morale is down. People don't work late. You come in, and it's quiet. There's no spirit of, 'We've got a new problem, let's go investigate it.' "

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