Whistle blower axed

Whistle blower axed

Alcatraz employee fired after telling Guardian reporter about raw sewage spill

By Amanda Witherell

Dan Cooke, an educator and historical interpreter who guided tours of Alcatraz Island for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has been fired in the wake of a Guardian article that quoted him complaining about a sewage spill in the Bay.

On March 3, 2007 Cooke was informed by his supervisor, John Moran, that his position had been terminated because there weren’t enough hours available to keep him employed.

However, the day before Cooke was fired, and for several days after, the GGNPC website was advertising an immediate opening for the same position as Cooke’s. That posting has since been removed from the web site.

Cooke has filed an administrative complaint with the United States Department of Labor against GGNPC and NPS, claiming he should be protected under the whistleblower provisions of several federal environmental and health safety acts.

Cooke was a source for an article about possible sewage spills on the island (see “Smelly Situation,” Dec. 27, 2006) and told the Guardian that on Oct. 13 he witnessed Alcatraz Cruises boat crew hosing raw sewage into the bay from an overflowing holding tank on the island. The spill was also witnessed by the captain of a passing ferry boat, who reported what he saw to California’s Environmental Protection Agency.

National Park Service spokespeople dismissed those claims in interviews with us for the article and said it was their understanding the spill in question was just salt water.

Cooke was a part-time, “on-call” employee and his hours often fluctuated with the seasons. In December, he took two months off to visit his family in England, but since his return in late January he had not been scheduled for any shifts.

He contacted his supervisor, Moran, to find out why. According to the administrative complaint filed by Cooke’s lawyer, Eleanor Morton, “Moran told Cooke that Cooke’s statements in the San Francisco Bay Guardian article had ‘caused a big flap’ at GGNPC and NPS. Moran said that there had been multiple meetings about the article. Moran said that there was a high level of anger and resentment at GGNPC toward Cooke for his statements, that NPS was very concerned and that Moran himself had felt pressured to say that he also was angry at Cooke.”

Cooke says he noted the spill in the NPS logbook because that was protocol, and spoke to the Guardian because he was concerned about public health and safety. “My training is if you see things that concern you, write them down and inform your supervisor,” he said.

When contacted by the Guardian, NPS spokesperson Chris Powell said, “the National Park Service has no comment at this time. We just can’t talk about things like this.”

GGNPC also refused to comment on personnel issues.

Cooke remains concerned about conditions of the sewage system on the island and whether or not what he and others witnessed on October 13 has been properly investigated. “I’ve never been asked a question about this once by anyone at the National Park Service. Nobody’s ever asked me what happened,” he said. He said that the park’s superintendent, Brian O’Neill. “needs to say when these events occur we will do a proper investigation.”

Assemblymembers Mark Leno and Fiona Ma agree. After reading the Guardian article, as well as receiving additional evidence of possible E. coli-riddled bilge water from a boat in the Alcatraz fleet, Leno and Ma called on the NPS and San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to investigate the island and ferry service sewage issues.

In a joint letter drafted Jan. 17, they wrote: “The Alcatraz Ferry Service is one of San Francisco’s major tourist destinations with international visibility and the volume of these trips is significant. For these reasons, we would like to know if the problems …have been thoroughly or should be thoroughly investigated by your agency with assistance from the appropriate federal or local officials.”

Superintendent O’Neill responded that “the investigations were closed as ‘unjustified complaints’” and questioned the origin and verity of the E.Coli test sample, which obtained by Marina Secchitano, regional director of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, who has been protesting Alcatraz Cruises ferry contract with the NPS (See “Casting off,” Sep. 26, 2006).

O’Neill questioned Secchitano’s ability to gain access to the bilge of the boat from where it’s claimed the sample hailed, and also said the results were from a lab where “this was not the kind of testing that they do.” But in fact, someone with access to the bilge gave the sample to Secchitano – and the lab in question, Brelje and Race, confirmed that this is, in fact, exactly the kind of testing they do.

“We received a copy of your letter discrediting our laboratory results,” wrote Ann Hill to the NPS. “Although we can’t vouch for where this sample was collected from, we do stand by our results….We did not tell Alcatraz Cruises that this was not the type of testing we do. I talked with them and told them we did not collect or pick up samples that far away.” Which wasn’t an issue in this case, since a spokesperson for the union told us Secchitano brought the sample to the lab.

As far as what Cooke and an anonymous captain witnessed, O’Neill continued to maintain it was just sea water. “This complaint is erroneous and unjustified; allow us to clarify what happened,” he wrote, submitting as evidence a written statement from the island’s facilities engineer, James L. Adams — except the incident Adams cites, of a parted salt water line, was four days after the overflowing shit tank that Cooke and the captain saw.

“The letter kind of skirted the question,” said Ma spokesperson, Nick Hardeman, summing up O’Neill’s response. “The Brian O’Neill letter to Fiona and Mark is all the more reason there needs to be an independent investigation. There are disputing facts here. We need to find out what’s going on.” Hardeman has met with Cooke and is in discussion with Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office to determine the proper jurisdiction for a full and independent investigation of the sewage system on Alcatraz and handling of it by Alcatraz Cruises.

Cooke says that’s the only reason he ever noted the spill in the first place. “I want an investigation. I want to go back to work. And I’d like the toilets to get fixed on the island. It’s a basic right for workers and visitors to the park,” he said. “If the net result is the termination of a person related to the leaking of the information, if that’s the only follow-up instead of an investigation, that’s a problem.” At this point, he is considering further legal action but is demanding only that the job he loves be reinstated and the appropriate back pay granted.

“The firing of Dan Cooke clearly raises a red flag,” Ma said in a statement to the Guardian. “My hope is that the National Park Service is committed to the protection of the fragile ecosystem of the Bay. If even some of Mr. Cooke’s allegations are true, it’s clear that NPS mistakenly thinks their reputation matters more than our environment.”

Originally published March 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian