Professionalism/William Sanjour and the EPA

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Environmental Protection Agency

William Sanjour worked in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) hazardous waste division during the 1970s. Seeing deficiencies in EPA hazardous waste regulations and enforcement, Sanjour became a whistleblower and environmental activist. Sanjour fought for whistleblowing protection and won a landmark suit that prevents the government from silencing employees that criticize government agencies. He continued to act as a public sentinel and whistleblower until his retirement in 2001.

Background[edit | edit source]

As branch chief of the Hazardous Waste Management Division, Sanjour led studies examining hazardous waste damage, disposal, and treatment [1]. In October 1975, Sanjour published a memorandum expressing concern over EPA policy encouraging the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. If sewage sludge were composed entirely of human excrement, using it as fertilizer would be safe; however, Sanjour and his staff had demonstrated that "sewage sludge contains a great many things other than excretion,” including substances such as industrial waste that may contain dangerous levels of cadmium and other heavy metals. Sanjour wrote that using sewage sludge as fertilizer is "the most efficient means (short of eating the sludge) of injecting toxic substances directly into the human body" [2].

Sanjour noted that in order for the EPA to adequately regulate sewage sludge, the EPA would have to treat it as industrial waste, contradicting existing EPA municipal sludge policy. As Congress considered granting the EPA authority to regulate hazardous wastes, Sanjour worried about the implications of this contradiction:

What will happen, then, if Congress gives EPA regulatory authority over hazardous wastes? Will we have one policy for hazardous wastes which go through municipal treatment plants and a different policy if it goes through and industrial treatment plant? if so, we will end up in court looking like fools. Will we fail to adequately regulate industrial wastes for fear of compromising EPA's policy on municipal sludge? ... Clearly there is a confrontation ahead, which can only be avoided by not getting regulatory authority or by changing EPA sewage sludge policy [2].

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act[edit | edit source]

"At first I fought from within the EPA to make RCRA work in the true spirit of the legislation. The agency responded by transferring me in 1979 to a position with no duties. I then became an outspoken EPA whistleblower. I alerted Congress, environmental groups, and the press to this attack on RCRA."

William Sanjour [3]

Sanjour's work with hazardous waste culminated on October 21, 1976, when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to regulate hazardous waste disposal. The RCRA stipulated that the EPA would have 18 months to draft specific hazardous waste regulations, and the EPA tasked Sanjour with framing them; Sanjour described this as "what I had always wanted - the challenge of an important task where I could be gainfully utilized and had the resources to do it" [1].

According to Sanjour, drafting these regulations quickly "became a political football"; in order to fight inflation, the Carter Administration instructed the Hazardous Waste Management Division to gut the regulations and exclude several industries from regulation [4]. This concerned Sanjour, who brought his grievances to his superior, Jack Lehman. Lehman did not take action as Sanjour had hoped:

In spite of the fact that he too had worked long and hard crafting the government’s hazardous waste program, Jack Lehman, ex-naval officer, would not disobey the orders of his superior. He said it was not his job to contradict his boss. Jack said Jorling [Lehmen's boss, responsible for implementing the cutbacks] would have to answer to Congress for his actions [1].

Speaking Out[edit | edit source]

In a June 1978 memorandum to the director of the Hazardous Waste Management Division, Sanjour attacked the decision to "cut back the [RCRA-stipulated] hazardous waste regulations" [5][6]. Sanjour sent a copy of the memo to the EPA public docket, but Sanjour's superiors illegally removed it from the docket [5]. In September 1978, Sanjour sent another memo detailing how the proposed Standards for Landspreading of Hazardous Waste "allow[ed] sewage sludge to be used as fertilizer," realizing Sanjour's previous fears that the EPA would fail to resolve the contradiction in its sewage sludge policy [5][7]. Sanjour also sent this memo to the public docket, and it was subsequently removed as well.

A month later, Sanjour was transferred to a position with "no duties and no staff" [8]. Even in his new position, Sanjour continued to speak out against lax EPA hazardous waste policy; from late 1978 to early 1979, Sanjour participated in "many press interviews" and was filmed alongside his EPA colleague Hugh Kaufman in The Killing Ground, a documentary on toxic waste dumping [1]. In March 1979, Sanjour wrote three memos documenting his orders to relax hazardous waste regulations, his superiors' cover-up of these orders, and the EPA's exclusion of key industries from hazardous waste regulations [9][10][11]. Sanjour again sent these memos to the EPA public docket, and they were again removed from the docket by Sanjour's superiors [5].

Senate Testimony[edit | edit source]

"This hearing was a benchmark in my life. It showed me that whistleblowing can work if done intelligently."

William Sanjour [1]

Love Canal intensified national attention on toxic waste dumping, and on August 1, 1979, Senator Carl Levin invited Sanjour to testify before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management [1][12]. In his testimony, Sanjour described the "nature of the hazardous waste problem"; the EPA's impetus to regulate hazardous waste under the RCRA; the EPA's negligent attitude towards implementing these regulations; reasons for delays, cutbacks, and "departure from statutory intent"; the dangers associated with hazardous wastes left unregulated by such cutbacks; EPA focus on cleaning up hazardous waste dump sites rather than regulating dumping as mandated in the RCRA; and his recommendations for "correcting some of the problems I've identified" [12]. Sanjour began his recommendations with a call to allocate fewer resources to the Hazardous Waste Management Division:

First and most obvious, there is no substitute for enthusiasm and the will to do the job you're charged with. In my opinion, EPA and the Administration does not want to regulate industrial disposal of hazardous waste. Unless this lack of will and attitude is changed, any money or positions added to EPA's budget for hazardous waste management is wasted and could be counterproductive [12].

Sanjour's recommendations also highlight the difficulty he faced in testifying against his employer:

Lastly, I would ask Congress to have compassion for the civil servant charged with writing regulations to implement a law which is opposed by the Administration. He is caught between his conscience and his career [12].

Inspired by Sanjour's testimony, the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management published a report in March 1980 that Sanjour cites as having three major outcomes: (1) Jorling, Sanjour's superior who was responsible for gutting the proposed hazardous waste regulations, left the EPA, (2) the EPA restored many of these regulatory cutbacks, and (3) Congress passed Superfund, requiring polluting industries to clean up dump sites [1].

Career[edit | edit source]

A year after being transferred, Sanjour was reinstated to the Hazardous Waste Management Division and continued a 30-year career as an EPA policy analyst before retiring in 2001 [1][8]. Over the course of his career, Sanjour repeatedly blew the whistle on EPA actions that endangered public health or the environment [5]. As he described in an interview:

I became a conduit for others in the government industry and for environmentalists, who had information about EPA waste, fraud, and abuse. I would investigate these charges and, if I felt they had merit, I would bring them to the attention of the administration or the inspector general, making sure that copies went to Congress and the press [3].

Sanjour was involved in a number of high-profile environmental cases, including:

Whistleblowing Activism[edit | edit source]

Throughout his career, Sanjour overcame many obstacles in order to effectively blow the whistle. Sanjour says that whistleblowing is "in his genes"; however, he also acknowledges that being a public sentinel is not for everyone:

[M]y advice to people, in general, is don’t be a public whistle-blower. Avoid open challenge or defiance of authority or power. Try to satisfy your conscience or your sense of duty without getting personally involved. For example, you can leak stuff to a known sentinel who is willing to take the heat, or to an activist organization, or to a plaintiff’s attorney, or anyone who will protect the identity of the source [3].

Sanjour urges would-be activists to "do their homework" before committing to blowing the whistle and outlined several guidelines in a 1993 essay titled Introductory Remarks for Undeclared Whistleblowers [16].

1. Don't be a whistleblower[edit | edit source]

While this may seem counterintuitive, Sanjour recommends that activists do "the Deep Throat thing," referring to the confidential informant that leaked information to the media to break the Watergate scandal [3]. As Sanjour personally experienced, being the face of a public scandal could have consequences including personal threats, ostracism, job demotion or termination, and public scrutiny. Ideally, a public or private organization would have a dedicated whistleblower to avoid these repercussions. If such a system is not in place, the media can also be used.

2. Know the rules, the laws, and your rights[edit | edit source]

Anyone considering blowing the whistle should be well informed before they do so. Sanjour states that "small subtle differences on how you blow the whistle, what you blow it on and where you blow it can make big differences in the kind of legal protection you have" [16]. He recommends:

  • Talking to people who have blown the whistle before
  • Investigating the results of previous whistleblowing cases within your organization
  • Reading books about whistleblowers and whistleblowing laws
  • Seeking legal counsel with attorneys who have experience with whistleblowing cases

3. Protect yourself from future harassment[edit | edit source]

In addition to practical advice like keeping records, notes, and logs of all relevant communications, Sanjour also recommends mental preparation for whistleblowing:

"However, if you elect to become a hard-core whistleblower, then elect it, don't stumble into it . . . Don't think you can continue defying the-powers- that-be and still enjoy the same lifestyle as before just because you are right or acting within the confines of your profession. Many whistleblowers have been destroyed by that kind of naïveté (or professional arrogance)" [16].

Sanjour points out that even after a successful whistleblowing campaign, life will be different for the whistleblower. To help mediate these changes, he recommends finding allies and building a support system before acting.

Sanjour v EPA[edit | edit source]

Sanjour's career culminated in his landmark case against the EPA, which resulted in expanded whistleblower protections.

Prior to 1991, federal employees could accept travel expense reimbursements from anyone except prohibited sources. In January 1991, the Office of Government Ethics added additional restrictions prohibiting compensation for speaking or writing on matters specifically related to their official duties. Combined with existing regulations from the General Services Administration that only allow employees to accept payment from non-federal sources when officially authorized by their employer, employees could only receive travel and accommodation reimbursements for "official" or "authorized" engagements [17].

Sanjour and Kaufman frequently traveled and gave speeches in an unofficial capacity, often criticizing EPA policies. Their travel was conducted on their own time, and they depended on travel expense reimbursement from private sources to reduce the costs of their speaking engagements. In late 1991, these regulations prevented Sanjour and Kaufman from receiving travel compensations for a public speaking invitation at NC WARN, and they were forced to turn it down. The event was subsequently cancelled [17].

Sanjour filed a seven-count complaint in district court against the EPA based on First Amendment rights violations. The courts sided with Sanjour and ordered a nationwide injunction upholding the First Amendment right of federal employees to criticize their agencies. Though controversial at the time, it is now widely accepted and has been cited favorably in later cases [18].

Future Work and Retirement[edit | edit source]

Superfund Site in Franklin, Milwaukee

Sanjour continued to work for the EPA until June 2001. After the 1995 ruling, he worked within the Superfund Ombudsman Program as a liaison between citizens and the government. After "failure of the Agency to cooperate in the investigations," he was transferred to an "obscure and relatively unimportant role" within the Technology Information Office [19]. In spite of this transfer and the EPA's continuous harassment, Sanjour continued his government service while supporting grassroots and activist organizations.

After retirement, he published a number of articles about environmental protection and whistleblowing protection [5]. He currently serves on the advisory board of the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network and the National Whistleblower Center and is a fellow of the Environmental Research Foundation.

Unfortunately, William Sanjour passed away on December 6, 2020, far away from his family in Portland. His personal website was moved to a new host, while the memories of his trips to Kiev and Paris were thoroughly cleaned up in it. But correspondence with his Ukrainian relative and photographs from these trips have survived.

Generalizations[edit | edit source]

Preparing Professionals[edit | edit source]

Professionals and individuals preparing to become professionals should study ethics and the ethical standards of their professions. As Sanjour writes:

Most whistleblowers do not start out to blow the whistle on anyone. They simply do what they think they ought to be doing. This is especially true of professional people, who when acting within the accepted practices and ethics of their profession sometimes find themselves vilified as whistleblowers when, in their minds, they are merely professionals carrying out their professional responsibility [16].

Even outside of whistleblowing, any professional could find themselves facing an ethical dilemma in their workplace, whether or not they seek it out. Studying ethics and preparing to face these circumstances is thus a key part of a professional's education.

Hidden Agendas[Rock 1][edit | edit source]

As Sanjour writes in his essay titled Why the EPA is Like it is:

We are, after all, talking about people who, although they may be lofty government dignitaries, nevertheless have mortgages to pay, children to send to college, and orthodontist bills. When one brings the hidden agenda out of hiding, the actions of the government become the actions of people, and they become a lot clearer [20].

While Sanjour specifically discusses the actions of public officials in regulatory agencies, the same is true in any profession in any industry. No matter what the stated goals or missions of the company are, there are always people involved, and those people have their own hidden agendas. These agendas could include things like keeping their job, setting themselves up for promotion, or getting a personal project passed or approved. Understanding the hidden agendas of individuals and how they influence the public agenda of the organization is fundamental to understanding the ethical dilemmas one might face in an organization.

For example, in the case of Rodney Rocha at NASA, Rocha's failure to report a debris strike ultimately resulted in the Columbia disaster. At the time, NASA operated under a safety slogan of "if it's not safe, say so." However, NASA's underlying internal agenda of "better, faster, cheaper" dissuaded others from acting on Rocha's reports until the disaster occurred.

In preparing to act in according to professional ethics, it's important to understand the effect that hidden agendas have on the priorities of the organization and consider in advance how they might cause professional or ethical concerns.

Precautions for Professionals[edit | edit source]

Professionals can mentally prepare themselves to make ethically correct decisions by studying ethics and cases of other professionals in the workplace. However, making the ethical decision can be difficult and result in being fired, demoted, or ostracized. Professionals can and should take practical steps to protect themselves when acting ethically pits them against the agendas of other individuals or organizations. By taking practical steps to prepare for an ethically questionable situation before one even arises, professionals can ensure that they are best prepared to make the right choice when facing a moral dilemma because they will know and be prepared for the consequences.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c d e f g h Sanjour, William. From the Files of a Whistleblower, or How EPA was Captured by the Industry it Regulated. December 2013.
  2. a b Sanjour, William. Memorandum: Policy Implications of Sewage Sludge on Hazardous Waste Regulation. October 1975.
  3. a b c d Carozza, Dick. An Interview with William Sanjour, Sentinal at the EPA. September 2007.
  4. Walsh, Edward. If You Don't Like it, Get Out, White House Tells EPA Staff. February 1979.
  5. a b c d e f Sanjour, William. Collected Papers of William Sanjour. n.d.
  6. Sanjour, William. Memorandum: Options for Implementing Hazardous Waste Regulations. June 1978.
  7. Sanjour, William. Memorandum: Standards for Landspreading of Hazardous Waste. September 1978.
  8. a b Sanjour, WIlilam. What's Wrong with the EPA? October 1992.
  9. Sanjour, William. Memorandum: Meeting on Hazardous Waste Regulations of June 15, 1978. March 1979.
  10. Sanjour, William. Memorandum: Meeting of July 20, 1978 March 1979.
  11. Sanjour, William. Memorandum: Meeting of September 22, 1978. March 1979.
  12. a b c d Sanjour, William. Statement of William Sanjour, Chief, Hazardous Waste Implementation Branch, Environmental Protection Agency, Before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate. August 1979.
  13. Winston-Salem Journal. Protests to Continue: EPA Official Criticizes Landfill. September 1982.
  14. Shabecoff, Philip. EPA Said to Show Favoritism in Action on a Waste Disposer. March 1985.
  15. Sanjour, William. Memorandum: The Monsanto Investigation. July 1994.
  16. a b c d Sanjour, William. Introductory Remarks for Undeclared Whistleblowers. September 1993
  17. a b FindLaw. Sanjour v. Environmental Protection Agency. Decided May 30, 1995.
  18. National Whistleblower Center. William Sanjour.
  19. Sanjour, William. Biography. 2016.
  20. Sanjour, William. Why EPA is like it is and what can be done about it. February, 1992.