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MPCA scientist claims harassment for speaking out about chemicals
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MPCA scientist Fardin Oliaei has filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency, claiming she has been harassed by her supervisors for talking to the media about chemical contamination. (MPR file photo)
A research scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency claims her bosses are trying to keep her from speaking out about the spread of potentially toxic chemicals. Fardin Oliaei has filed a federal complaint against the MPCA, alleging retaliation for talking to Minnesota Public Radio about chemicals from 3M's Scotchguard operations found in wells in the east metro area. One state legislator says he believes the MPCA has attempted to silence the scientist.

St. Paul, Minn. — Fardin Oliaei claims she has been subjected to harrassment, and her reputation and career as a scientist have been harmed by MPCA bosses -- from Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan down to her immediate supervisors.

Oliaei has filed a federal complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asking the federal government to investigate her charges, and take steps to restore her reputation. She is also seeking compensation for mental and physical suffering from the MPCA and her supervisors.

Oliaei is the MPCA's lead scientist on new environmental threats -- chemicals so new, no one is regulating them.

In April, the MPCA issued a written reprimand against her, in part for comments she made during an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

In the interview, Oliaei expressed frustration that the agency repeatedly refused to approve research that trace the source of perfluorinated chemicals formerly made by 3M as part of its Scotchgard line.

Oliaei's lawyer, Rockford Chrastil, says Oliaei has been punished for doing her job.

"She was pursuing this research to find out what these chemicals were, where they were coming from. She was trying to get approval for additional studies, and she was talking to the legislators about the issues and concerns she had," says Chrastil. "With the MPR interview, she was simply discussing what the facts were, what had happened in terms of how her requests had been denied and what people were saying about her, etc."

Oliaei conducted the first independent study in Minnesota showing that perfluorinated chemicals had spread into the environment beyond 3M's plant in Cottage Grove. Previous studies had shown the chemicals had spread around the globe and had even entered the nation's blood supply. Lab tests showed the chemicals were toxic to test animals.

Oliaei wanted to trace the chemicals to their source, most likely 3M. But MPCA supervisors refused to approve any more of her research requests. Oliaei appealed to commissioner Corrigan, who told her MPCA is not a research agency.

The reprimand accused Oliaei of violating MPCA policy about talking to the media -- of making misstatements and disseminating misinformation that dishonored the work of MPCA staff. Chrastil says Oliaei has never been told exactly what those misstatements were.

"The majority of the interview was done in front of a supervisor, who didn't say anything at the time that she was saying anything wrong or doing anything wrong, or missstating agency position or facts, or anything else," says Chrastil.

Oliaei says she was ordered not to respond to requests for information from state lawmakers. When she was asked to meet with lawmakers in April, Oliaei's supervisor showed up, uninvited.

Minnesota Public Radio reported earlier this year the MPCA didn't begin investigating contamination related to the 3M perfluorochemical operations until after the company told the agency the drinking water at the Cottage Grove plant was contaminated. That was two years after 3M announced it would phase out Scotchgard over environmental and health concerns.

In her federal complaint, Oliaei also charges her supervisor ordered her not to respond to requests for information from state lawmakers about chemical contamination. When Oliaei was summoned to a meeting with Sen. John Marty and other legislators in April, Oliaei's supervisor showed up, uninvited.

The complaint alleges Oliaei was told by the supervisor not to have any further contact with legislators on the perfluorochemical issue.

Marty, DFL-Roseville, describes the situation with the MPCA as "outrageous," and an attempt to muzzle Oliaei.

"That's where my concern is. In one of its reprimands to her that was filed with the complaint, they tell her that they want to be open with information -- however, (she's) got to respect their media policies," says Marty. "It seems to me what they are trying to do is keep her quiet, and keep her from talking to public officials who might be concerned about environmental damage."

Marty has asked the MPCA for copies of all of Oliaei's research requests for the previous three years.

A spokesman for the MPCA said the agency has not seen the complaint brought by Oliaei. In any case, he says the state data privacy law prevents the agency from commenting on personnel matters.

On the matter of the information sought by Sen. Marty, an MPCA spokesman said those materials will be delivered Tuesday.