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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lab Fraud

Air Date: Week of September 29, 2000

The U.S. Justice Department calls it the biggest case of laboratory fraud in the nation's history, and the scandal affects 59,000 toxic clean-up sites in the U.S. After a two-year probe of the Intertech Laboratory in Richardson, Texas, 13 former employees had been criminally charged in connection with widespread falsification of environmental test reports. The defendants deny the charges. The reports called into question influenced clean-up decisions at a range of government and private toxic spills, including leaky underground fuel tanks and Superfund sites. Paul Coggins is the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. He explains the indictments.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The U.S. Justice Department calls it the biggest case of laboratory fraud in the nation's history, and the scandal affects 59,000 toxic clean-up sites in the U.S. After a two-year probe of the Intertech Laboratory in Richardson, Texas, 13 former employees had been criminally charged in connection with widespread falsification of environmental test reports. The defendants deny the charges. The reports called into question influenced clean-up decisions at a range of government and private toxic spills, including leaky underground fuel tanks and Superfund sites. Paul Coggins is the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. He explains the indictments.

COGGINS: This lab at one time had been part of a chain which was the second largest environmental testing chain in the country. And there had always been sort of allegations out there that this particular lab, the Richardson lab, was a lowball bidder. It got prices below its competitors. But at some point, the Air Force actually sent them a sample which had already been tested. It contained nine contaminants, the sample did. The lab failed to detect seven of the nine contaminants. So, the Air Force was investigating that. The lab started investigating it itself, and it turned out they had a major problem not just with that one test, but with literally thousands of tests.

CURWOOD: Tell me, exactly, what kind of problems did you find during this investigation?

COGGINS: One of the major expenses of any environmental testing is making sure that the machines are properly maintained and properly calibrated. When they're calibrated, that means basically the machine's offline. And you're not generating the kind of analyses that you get paid money for. The culture arose in this lab in which the idea was: just get the paperwork out. Even if we know the paperwork is faulty, even if we know there's a high danger of false negatives. In other words, a negative report getting out there, no contaminants, when there well could have been contaminants. These people were playing Russian roulette with our environment. With our air, with our water, and with our soil.

CURWOOD: What happens now to these sites? I mean, talking about 60,000 sites, 60,000 clean-ups that the information is now unreliable from.

COGGINS: Well, that's one of the problems that the EPA and the Air Force and the municipalities and all the clients have got to get together and determine how best to get information out to the end-users. In certain cases, it's likely that simply the tests cannot be run, because of what's been developed on the site. In other cases, the test may not be valid now, because the contaminants have migrated. But to the greatest extent possible, the word has got to go out to end-users of this Richardson lab that they need to be suspicious. They need to contact EPA and determine with the EPA what can be done to re-test these sites now, to make sure that there's no environmental harm.

CURWOOD: Why didn't the EPA warn the public two years ago when they first learned about this?

COGGINS: Well, I think the EPA, and I hate to speak for the EPA because I don't work for them, but I've worked with the EPA on this case, I think they were concerned to some extent that there was a federal grand jury investigation going on, and, you know, I guess they were concerned that some of the information might be protected by grand jury secrecy, and how they draw the line between getting the word out to the public and yet preserving the viability of an ongoing criminal investigation.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this. If the XYZ airplane manufacturing company had an employee blow the whistle, and say that the gizmo that's being put in their 123 plane is faulty, and we think that they fudged the papers and this is a lot of fraud here, should the FAA step forward and warn people who are using this aircraft, or wait for the grand jury to be done with its business?

COGGINS: Absolutely. In effect, we've had cases like that. The FAA steps forward early.

CURWOOD: So where's the EPA here, then?

COGGINS: Well, I'm not sure that the EPA sees its job in the same way the FAA sees their job. But clearly, what you're talking about, the FAA goes public early, does not wait for the criminal investigation. And I think, you know, the EPA will probably say we're not going to wait for the criminal investigation, either. And didn't wait for the criminal investigation to the extent that we took these steps. Should they have gone public earlier is something really, I think, the EPA has to address.

CURWOOD: The defendants in this case, and others, have raised the question about the timing of these indictments. They say boy oh boy, this is right next to the presidential elections, in an election where the governor of Texas has taken some heat for his environmental record. What kind of politics, if any, are being played by the timing of this indictment?

COGGINS: None. I've been pushing this case for two years. Every time we thought we were ready to indict, something else came up that we needed to look at. So bottom line, we turned it over to the law enforcement professionals and said we want to go just as soon as you feel we've got a handle on this. And that turned out to be now.

CURWOOD: What is the way of further indictments should we expect to see?

COGGINS: You can expect to see an aggressive investigation that will take a look at other actors, try to determine how widespread this problem was, both within this lab and outside this lab. Who knew what was going on. Who sanctioned it. Who took steps to try to obstruct the investigators, if that was done. So you will see a very, very aggressive investigation conducted outside of the one that has already produced indictments of 13 individuals, including five supervisors and the highest-rated official at the Richardson lab.

CURWOOD: Paul Coggins is U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. Thank you, sir, for taking this time.

COGGINS: Well, thank you.

 

 

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