‘Wrongdoing’ likely in USDA maintenance of the nation’s largest agricultural research facility, OSC says
Union leaders said a recent winter flood of a building at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center is just a symptom of systematic mismanagement of the facility.
At 6,000 acres, the Agriculture Department’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center is the largest hub for farm research in the United States and, if you’re a Maryland native, a possible origin of the Goatman urban legend.
It’s also falling apart.
Last winter, a burst pipe caused flooding in building 007 at the property, known simply as BARC to employees, for the second time in five years. But, to the dismay of employees, after a quick cleanup effort they were sent back to their freshly dried offices and laboratories.
“This was flood No. 2 in five years, almost to the day, and it was building-wide, with water seeping through the brick on all five floors,” said Ashaki “Teddi” Mitchell, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3147, which represents employees at BARC, and a 34-year biological science lab technician. “But they just cleaned up the building and said, ‘OK, you can go back in.’ All of the conversation [around reopening] was around mold, but what about the electrical system? The plumbing? Structural issues? We knew some of the water had refroze—we were watching bricks with ice inside of them—but management said nothing except it was safe to go back in.”
Frustrated by the response, and the lack of response to a subsequent meeting with USDA’s northeast area director, whose region includes BARC, in which the union laid out a myriad of maintenance and other management issues at the site, Mitchell, Local 3147 President Claudette Joyner and Secretary Linda Seemann all filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. They also went to Reuters, which in May reported about the complaint, which alleged unsafe working conditions at building 007.
Mitchell said the union officials elected to become whistleblowers rather than file grievances because of how widespread the lack of maintenance was at the facility.
“If you just name a building, these problems are happening there,” she said. “We would be buried in grievances if we tried that route. It’s just not the appropriate tool—it’s more like, ‘Here’s a problem and this is what we want you to do about it.’ This is investigatory. We don’t even know how deep the problems go. Although our indications suggest they run really deep, we just don’t know how deep.”
Problems BARC employees encounter range from elevators being perpetually out of order—one worker was once trapped with a limited air supply because they were transporting dewar flasks of liquid nitrogen between floors—to wildly fluctuating indoor temperatures. Potable tap water has not been available since 2018.
After Reuters’ story was published, USDA management quickly closed building 007. But Mitchell said they did it with nearly no warning over Memorial Day weekend. The deadline to evacuate the building was eventually delayed until the end of that week, June 2, but, especially with the elevator out of order, the closure caused manic scenes of scientists moving dangerous equipment so they could continue their research.
“There are chemicals in there, research, freezers with decades of research,” she said. “If you tell people to just leave it and walk out, our researchers are not going to like that. They’ve dedicated their lives to agricultural research—they won’t just walk out. We ended up getting an extension, because of the Canadian wildfires creating bad air quality, but I personally witnessed people doing unsafe things: carrying acids and bases together across the parking lot, gases being carried in personal cylinders, and chemicals being put in people’s personal vehicles because we had to move so quickly.”
In a June 29 letter to the whistleblowers, OSC announced it would order an the investigation into the conditions at BARC. Although OSC cannot independently investigate whistleblower allegations, it can direct agencies to conduct investigations, typically via an inspector general.
“We emphasize that, while OSC has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information you submitted in support of your allegations, our referral to the [Agriculture] secretary for investigation is not a final determination that the allegations are substantiated,” the watchdog agency wrote. “This remains an open matter under investigation until the agency’s final report is forwarded to the president and Congress.”
Mitchell stressed that although the focus has been on building 007, she and other labor leaders are convinced the issues at BARC are systemic. She said two decisions from over a decade ago have led the facility down the path it is on now.
First, on the maintenance capacity front, she argued that Office of Management and Budget guidance from the George W. Bush administration, which required agencies to compete with federal contractors over who could most efficiently perform governmental functions, hollowed out the facility’s maintenance staff, who are paid on the Federal Wage System’s wage grade pay scale. Although President Obama rescinded the policy in 2009, USDA never reverted its staffing policies at BARC.
“So, in order to get a [most efficient organization] rating, they reduced the grade of maintenance employees,” Mitchell said. “Those who were WG-10s ended up on paper as WG-7s, and they were never returned to their original grades. Now, as a result of that, those positions are still not WG-10s, they’re 5s and 6s . . . The work needed at BARC is so huge and complex, anyone who comes and works here has to understand lots of things. The WG-6s are great at what they do, but they just don’t have the expertise we need [to fix things].”
The second major change at BARC is related to the Agriculture Department’s decision to reorganize its eight regions into five areas in the early 2010s. As part of this reorganization, safety officials began reporting directly to a facility’s director, which Mitchell argues created a disincentive for employees to report safety issues.
“When that structure changed, the safety people started answering to the very person they were supposed to hold accountable,” she said. “Around three to four years ago, most of the safety office left all at the same time, and we went from seven or eight of them down to three . . . There are three safety staffers now. Two have been there for less than two years, and they are extremely stressed.”
A USDA spokesperson on Wednesday declined to answer specific questions about the union’s allegations, but committed to both investigating claims of mismanagement and to repairing BARC.
“Our employees’ health and well-being is our top priority, and we remain committed to the ongoing effort to modernize our research facilities so employees have workspaces that can support the critical research they carry out,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We will investigate these allegations while continuing our work to modernize this facility and address employees’ concerns.”
The union leaders said all they want is for the Agriculture Department to value their work, and BARC as a research institution, as much as they do.
”These people are some of the most dedicated feds you will ever see,” Mitchell said. “During the 2013 government shutdown, you wouldn’t have known it looking at BARC. People parked in a parking lot off site and walked over so they could continue working on their research. This is extremely personal for people: you carry your research from undergrad to your Master’s to your postdoc or your apprenticeship, you carry it for decades. You don’t walk away. You just don’t.”