Whistle blower axed

Alcatraz employee fired after telling Guardian reporter about raw sewage spill

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.