Environmental Whistleblowers May Be Losing Their Rights

August 28, 2013

Can a federal employee who discloses lax safety inspections of gas pipelines or terminals be fired? That might be the case under a new federal appeals court decision that limits the whistleblower protections for federal employees who disclose "sensitive," but noncritical national security information.

The definitions of unclassified information kept secret by the government are a jumble — but it is pretty clear that environmental and energy regulatory agencies like EPA and FERC have a lot of it. The sensitive-but-unclassified categories often include confidential business information" (CBI, essentially trade secrets). And businesses frequently claim information related to their environmental health and safety performance as CBI.

The 7-to-3 August 20, 2013, ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was a case that involved Defense Department employees. But the Defense Department has agencies such as the Corps of Engineers whose decisions have great environmental impact. Another agency with environmental responsibilities, the US Coast Guard, operates under the Department of Homeland Security, but is also quasi-military. Some information held by the US Environmental Protection Agency is actually classified under the national security classification system.