Faked test results reveal deeper issues at USGS lab

By Michael Doyle | 01/03/2022 01:05 PM EST

National Water Quality Laboratory

The Analytical Services lab at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo. National Water Quality Laboratory/U.S. Geological Survey

A U.S. Geological Survey analyst at a premier science lab examining water quality told investigators that tight deadline pressures and staffing shortfalls drove the faking of several thousand test results, records obtained by E&E News show.

The unnamed 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 problems existed at the lab, such as inadequate supervision and insufficient support.

“According to the confession and subsequent statements, Subject was motivated by desire to meet processing deadlines in the face of diminishing resources/support,” the final scientific integrity report stated.

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 difficult.”

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

“The subject engaged in scientific misconduct … by significantly departing from accepted practices and intentionally falsifying quality control data in the research record from the ammonium, nitrite, and orthophosphate analysis method,” the investigator summed up (Greenwire, March 17).

But the full report obtained under FOIA, though partially redacted and thickened with thousands of highly technical individual test results, provides a more complete picture of issues at a lab that plays a key role in tracking the nation’s water quality.

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

The lab, which conducts analysis for USGS water science centers and other government agencies, receives an annual average of almost 39,000 samples and produces about 1.8 million results. The pace of work can seem relentless, staffers reported.

“Statements by Subject and some witnesses indicate implicit pressure to produce for professional advancement within the laboratory,” the report noted, adding that the “overall laboratory emphasis on production was described by Subject and other witnesses.”

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

USGS spokesperson Gavin Shire told E&E News that the agency does not comment on individual personnel matters, but he stressed that “USGS takes scientific integrity extremely seriously and works to remedy any loss swiftly and comprehensively.”

“Since the matter at the [lab] was uncovered, we have pursued multiple courses of action to prevent any similar issues from recurring in the future,” Shire said.

Specifically, Shire said USGS has filled management team vacancies and sought out staff input at various levels to understand lab operations. The agency also brought in an outside contractor to conduct an audit, while starting to build a new information management system to track work and safeguard data integrity.

A lab under pressure

The lab’s Analytical Services section analyzes more than 800 inorganic and organic constituents in groundwater, surface water, wastewater, sediment, atmospheric precipitation and biological tissues.

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

The testing includes quality control samples used to calibrate the instrument. If the value detected by the instrument for the samples is outside the set specification limits, quality control has failed, but the analyst has the ability to override the software and manually accept a rejected result.

USGS emails show that, sometime around late June 2020, some lab officials were made aware of what one called “data issues” in a lab unit. By the time of a July 27 email, one official wrote that “the situation was looking more serious” as an official had “confronted the analyst” and obtained a signed statement.

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

“I did this due to an immense feeling of pressure to get results out as quickly as possible,” the technician wrote, adding that “I am the only analyst currently running the line and I felt this was my best option.”

Lab analysts have a time requirement of 30 days for performing initial nutrient analyses but are encouraged to complete analyses within 14 days of receipt to allow time for processing rerun requests.

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

“I understand my actions were wrong. I regret them completely, and apologize whole-heartedly,” the technician wrote.

A complaint was filed with the Interior Department’s Office of the Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs on Aug. 7, 2020, and assigned to a USGS scientific integrity officer.

The investigator subsequently determined that the analyst acted alone and intentionally to falsify data for the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in about 2,300 water samples.

But as part of the inquiry, the investigator interviewed six people who revealed the lab problems that went beyond one stressed-out technician.

“All witnesses note the Nutrients section has lacked consistent leadership for several years, which witnesses stated has led to low morale and suspicion of laboratory leadership,” the investigator wrote. “Several witnesses described ‘long periods’ without a supervisor and ‘rotating’ supervisors; witnesses said confusion about roles, responsibilities, and how to address problems resulted.”

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

Applegate is currently serving as the acting director. The Biden administration has not yet nominated a director for USGS.

The agency notified users of the affected analyses and flagged the permanent analysis records to reflect the loss of quality control for the samples involved.

In 2014, USGS discovered a problem in its Energy Geochemistry Laboratory, also located in Lakewood. A mass spectrometer operator assigned to the lab’s Inorganic section had been accused of scientific misconduct and data manipulation (E&E Daily, Dec. 7, 2016).

"We also learned that, even though management discovered the incident in late 2014, employees had long suspected quality-related problems to be associated with the laboratory," Interior’s Office of Inspector General reported in 2016.