Fake test results reveal deeper issues at USGS lab

A US Geological Survey analyst at a leading science lab examining water quality told investigators tight deadlines and staff shortages led to the falsification of several thousand test results, according to the reports. records obtained by E&E News.

The anonymous analyst at the USGS National Water Quality Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo., Falsified test results from March 2019 through June 2020, investigators found. And while the analyst confessed to acting alone, other employees told investigators that broader issues existed in the lab, such as inadequate supervision and insufficient support.

“According to the confessions and subsequent statements, the topic was motivated by a desire to meet processing times in the face of dwindling resources / support,” said the final report on Scientific Integrity.

Obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act, the report noted that staff support for some of the Colorado lab’s work has “waned in recent years” and that meeting requirements “with existing resources was often very high. difficult “.

A very brief summary of the investigation was released earlier this year.

“The subject engaged in scientific misconduct … by deviating significantly from accepted practices and intentionally tampering with the quality control data in the research dossier from the ammonium analysis method,” nitrites and orthophosphates “, summarized the investigator (Green wire, The 17th of March).

But the full FOIA report, while partially written and supplemented with thousands of highly technical individual test results, provides a more complete picture of the issues encountered in a lab that plays a key role in monitoring quality. of the country’s water.

The USGS laboratory has approximately 98 permanent federal employees and 22 contract employees. It helps assess the health of aquatic systems and identify potential sources of contamination, such as agricultural runoff that drains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

The lab, which performs analyzes for the USGS Water Science Centers and other government agencies, receives an annual average of nearly 39,000 samples and produces about 1.8 million results. The pace of work can seem unrelenting, staff members reported.

“Statements from the subject and some witnesses indicate an implicit pressure to produce for professional advancement within the lab,” the report notes, adding that “the lab’s overall emphasis on production was described by the subject and d ‘other witnesses’.

The pandemic and the adoption of a “new and problematic data management system” have also caused stress, investigators found.

USGS spokesman Gavin Shire told E&E News the agency does not comment on individual personnel issues, but he stressed that “the USGS takes scientific integrity very seriously and is strives to remedy any loss quickly and comprehensively “.

“From the case to the [lab] was discovered, we pursued several action plans to prevent similar issues from recurring in the future, ”said Shire.

Specifically, Shire said the USGS has filled vacant positions on the management team and solicited feedback from staff at different levels to understand lab operations. The agency also brought in an external subcontractor to perform an audit, while starting to build a new information management system to track work and protect data integrity.

A pressurized laboratory

The analytical services section of the laboratory analyzes more than 800 inorganic and organic constituents in groundwater, surface water, wastewater, sediment, atmospheric precipitation, and biological tissue.

Analysts test filtered water samples for ammonium, nitrite, and orthophosphate on an instrument called the Kone Aquakem 600 DA.

The tests include quality control samples used to calibrate the instrument. If the value detected by the instrument for the samples is outside the defined specification limits, the quality control has failed, but the analyst has the option of bypassing the software and manually accepting a rejected result.

USGS emails show that around the end of June 2020, some lab managers were made aware of what were called “data issues” in a lab unit. At the time of a July 27 email, an official wrote that “the situation seemed more serious” because an official had “confronted the analyst” and obtained a signed statement.

The technician’s admission of July 18, 2020, addressed “to whom it may concern”, indicated that the results “just below” or “just above” certain test thresholds were sometimes modified to be within the acceptable range. This avoided the need for a retest.

“I did this because of an immense sense of pressure to get the results as quickly as possible,” the technician wrote, adding that “I am the only analyst currently in charge of the line and I thought it was was my best option “.

Laboratory analysts have 30 days to complete initial nutrient analyzes, but are encouraged to complete analyzes within 14 days of receipt to allow time to process replay requests.

The technician wrote that there was “very little time to analyze all the samples and process the data as it is,” and expressed remorse.

“I understand my actions were wrong. I regret them completely and apologize with all my heart, ”the technician wrote.

A complaint was filed with the Home Office’s Executive Secretary and Regulatory Affairs office on August 7, 2020 and assigned to a USGS Scientific Integrity Officer.

The investigator later determined that the analyst acted alone and intentionally to tamper with data on the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in approximately 2,300 water samples.

But as part of the investigation, the investigator interviewed six people who revealed lab issues that went beyond a stressed technician.

“All witnesses note that the nutrients section lacked consistent leadership for several years, which, according to witnesses, led to low morale and suspicion of the management of the laboratory,” wrote the ‘investigator. “Several witnesses described ‘long periods’ without a supervisor and ‘rotating’ supervisors; witnesses said this resulted in confusion about roles, responsibilities and how to resolve issues.

David Applegate, USGS associate director for natural hazards exercising the director’s delegated authority, said in a statement earlier this year that “the unethical actions of a single individual are deeply troubling, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers. “

Applegate is currently the Acting Director. The Biden administration has yet to appoint a director for the USGS.

The agency notified users of affected assays and flagged permanent assay records to reflect the loss of quality control of affected samples.

In 2014, the USGS discovered a problem in its Energy Geochemistry Lab, also located in Lakewood. A mass spectrometer operator assigned to the inorganic section of the lab had been charged with scientific misconduct and data manipulation (Daily E&E, December 7, 2016).

“We also learned that, although management discovered the incident at the end of 2014, employees had long suspected that quality-related issues were associated with the lab,” the Inspector General’s office reported. the Interior in 2016.

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