A federal whistleblower complaint says open pits of toxic wastewater, roads bulldozed through protected wildlife habitat, and secret hunting cabins are all being allowed on public lands in Nevada.
Is Nevada’s BLM — and its Battle Mountain District, in particular — allowing all this, and more?
That's what BLM Environmental Protection Specialist Dan Patterson claims, in the complaint filed last October. Patterson says the agency is letting mining and oil and gas companies run amok on federal lands, often at the expense of sensitive species, and that they suspended him for trying to bring the infractions to light.
Patterson described 10 specific incidents that he said either violated federal law or consisted of abuse of authority — or in some cases, did both.
“The best way I can describe it right now is: Your government is giving away your public lands to modern-day robber-barons,” Patterson said to KNPR's State of Nevada.
One of the complaints detailed a mining operation that he said was allowed to skirt standard operating procedures and create a toxic pit lake instead of being required to build a less polluting but more expensive option.
Patterson goes even further. He said the mining company hired Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's former law firm to aggressively pursue the permitting of the pit lake.
Another instance he outlines in his complaint says the BLM allowed roads to be bulldozed through the habitat of desert bighorn sheep. Several stakeholders have worked to protect the sheep and that habitat, he said, but the roads can have a dramatic effect on them.
“It really will start to change the overall character of the ecosystem from a healthy ecosystem for desert bighorn sheep to one that is cut apart by roads,” he said.
In his complaint Patterson also described the Five Jokers Mining claim in Nye County, which is held by five prominent people, including one man who was a county administrator. Instead of mining operations, the 'five jokers,' as they call themselves, built vacation houses on the property, according to Patterson.
“If you own a mining claim on public lands, you do have some rights to look for minerals there and do some exploring," he said, "You do not have the right to develop those lands as your own and take them for a vacation spot.”
Patterson's other claims are less tangible than vacation homes and pit lakes. However, he said he has been blocked from accessing the files and emails that back up these claims.
He is hopeful that the Inspector General will acquire the information during their investigation.
“All I can do as a public employee is do my job, the public duty to expose wrong-doing by the government or at least what I see and call for an investigation," he said, "The Interior Department Office of Inspector General has this complaint and we understand is looking at it.”
Patterson also notes that since 2017 there has been an effort, pushed by people higher up in the Interior Department, to stop employees from keeping records of conversations or emails. He said the department is encouraging employees to talk over the phone rather than exchanging emails.
“I believe it’s an alarming situation where we have public agencies really doing the bidding of private industry and shutting out the public, almost looking at the interested public as an enemy of the current development agenda of the Trump Administration,” he said.
Patterson said he spent two years trying to get his supervisors to listen to his concerns, but when that didn't happen he decided to file his complaint.
“No public employee is going to launch into a whistleblower complaint until they’ve really exhausted their ability to deal with it within the current management," he said, "But the current management, under the current administration, is simply not interested in BLM pursuing a multiple-use agenda, which includes conservation, includes wildlife, includes working with tribes, includes working with people concerned about the environment.”
He said the BLM is a "permit shop" for extractive industries.
Jeff Ruch is an attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He's representing Patterson.
He said any public employee who discloses a violation of any rule, law or regulation is covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act. In addition, he said that no adverse action can be taken against someone covered by the act.
Despite that coverage, he said that is rarely what happens.
“One of the reasons why these cases attract so much attention is that, generally speaking, publicly blowing the whistle is functionally a career-ending event. You don’t see many people that expect to go back to their job, let alone prosper,” he said.
Ruch said it is particularly difficult right now because the BLM doesn't have a permanent director. He said the Interior Department is filled with political appointees.
“In the long, and sometimes not-distinguished history of BLM, we’ve never seen a period where its been so politicized and hollowed out at the same time,” he said.
This is not the first time that Patterson has been in the headlines. In 2011, he resigned from the Arizona Legislature after being accused of verbally harassing colleagues. He says the charge was politically motivated, and he eventually was exonerated.
Ruch notes that any past behaviors are not relevant to current allegations of wrongdoing. He said a whistleblower's identity is used by agencies to distract from the allegations they are making.
In addition, Patterson denied that his allegations were based on partisan politics. He said there is broad support for keeping public lands open to the public.
“It is not a partisan issue. People value their public lands for hunting and fishing – all kinds of reasons. So, it’s not,” he said
Patterson said the issue is average people versus well-connected corporate influence.
The BLM's Nevada State Office sent the following statement in response to KNPR's invitation to participate in the discussion: "The BLM cannot comment on the truth or accuracy of the whistleblower complaint's allegations while the complaint is before the Office of Special Counsel and the DOI Office of the Inspector General. We stand ready to assist and provide information to the OSC or the OIG if asked."
NOTE: Dan Patterson does not speak on behalf of the Bureau of Land Management.
Dan Patterson, environmental protection specialist, Nevada Bureau of Land Management; Jeff Ruch, attorney, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
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