Mike Mulligan

Retired FBI Agent Mike Mulligan has raised concerns about hazardous environmental conditions at a former Gaston copper factory where the FBI conducted tactical training for law enforcement in April 2017. Brad Nettles/Staff

A retired FBI agent wants a deeper investigation into possible health hazards law enforcement officers were exposed to during a tactical training class last year at a former South Carolina copper factory.

Michael Mulligan, a 21-year FBI veteran, said former colleagues retaliated against him when he raised concerns about mold, toxic chemicals and a lack of running water at the training site in Gaston, about 20 miles outside the state capital. After retiring in September, he filed complaints with the Department of Justice and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the April training session.

“The facility is in bad repair,” he wrote in a December complaint to the Justice Department. “I complained about the health aspects of training in such a facility and I was told to be quiet.”

Mulligan was sent from the FBI Training Academy in Virginia to conduct the four-day class. After he raised concerns about the site, he said, a lead agent from the bureau’s Columbia division criticized his job performance and accused him of gossiping. Mulligan said he was later shut out of a planned transfer to Charleston and told to go to Columbia instead — to work alongside the same people whose judgment he had questioned. He chose to give up his badge instead.

His whistleblower allegation comes at a time when the FBI is under fire on several fronts. President Donald Trump has blasted the agency's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, prompting complaints from conservatives of partisan bias. Others have assailed the agency for ignoring a tipster’s warning about Florida school shooter Nicholas Cruz. And, in recent days, reports have surfaced alleging that the FBI's former deputy director misled investigators about an improper disclosure of sensitive information.

Mulligan, who now lives in Mount Pleasant, is proud of his time with the agency and insists he is not looking to add to the FBI’s woes. But he worries that no one is taking his complaints seriously, and he wonders why no one warned the nearly two dozen participants in the Gaston class that they would be training on a former smelting facility with a long history of environmental problems. 

FBI officials said no one other than Mulligan has raised any concerns, and they’ve seen no evidence to prove the 400-acre site presented a danger. They declined to comment on his claims of retaliation.

OSHA officials closed their safety inquiry two weeks after receiving Mulligan’s complaint, citing assurances from the FBI that his concerns had been investigated by the bureau and that no hazards were found. The OSHA file, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, contains no indication that OSHA investigators visited the site on their own.

To Mulligan, it felt like a brush-off, but he remains undeterred: “I stand by what I said. We should have never been in that place to begin with.”

'Just unacceptable'

With short-clipped hair, a trim build and a penetrating gaze, Mulligan retains the bearing of a veteran cop. He started with the FBI in 1997 and rose through the ranks to become a supervisory special agent. Along the way, he ran the FBI's violent crime task force in Los Angeles and spent five years as a master instructor at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico. 

He came to South Carolina last year to train law enforcement officers from across the state in SWAT-style techniques for operating in high-risk scenarios, from breaching and securing buildings to confronting armed suspects in tight quarters. The FBI selected the former Gaston copper plant for a portion of that training because the sprawling, vacant space provided a variety of layouts and challenges, along with a safe space to use paintball ammunition, officials said.

The copper plant, which opened in the mid-1970s, closed down about two decades later after a long run of environmental issues. In the years that followed, more than 14,000 tons of contaminated soil and other waste were hauled away from the site, and millions of dollars were spent to remove lead and other chemicals from the dirt, according to Associated Press reports from that time. Remediation is still underway at a tank house on the property, where groundwater is being pumped and treated to extract nickel and copper from a shrinking plume of contamination, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Mulligan said he trained in a variety of spaces over the years, but this was by far the worst. Water leaked from the ceilings, the walls crawled with black and white mold, pools of multi-colored fluids spotted the property and the bathrooms lacked running water, he said. Mulligan said he was concerned for the safety of everyone involved.

“It was just unacceptable,” he said.

Mulligan said he complained to the South Carolina-based agents who chose the site and relayed his concerns to his boss at the FBI academy. A lead agent in the FBI's Columbia office quickly fired back, blistering Mulligan’s attitude and performance in an email to his boss.

Soon after, Mulligan said, his planned transfer to Charleston was scuttled, prompting his decision to retire. He said he held off on notifying OSHA and the Justice Department about his concerns until he was sure his pension was safe and he could guarantee his family's financial safety.

"I was scared to death something would happen if I did something before then," he said.

Investigation closed

FBI officials wouldn't discuss Mulligan's allegations of retaliation, but they disputed his other claims in correspondence to OSHA and in comments to The Post and Courier.

An FBI official told OSHA that agency officials launched a formal inquiry and found no evidence at all to suggest that class participants were exposed to toxic chemicals or other hazards. The bureau also noted that the Lexington County Sheriff's Office had safely used the facility for a substation and for training in years past — a fact the Sheriff's Office confirmed. 

The newspaper reached out to more than a dozen officers who participated in the class, but only two responded to those inquiries. One said he didn't know anything about the dispute; the other, Jonathan Malcom of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, agreed that the site was filthy but said he has not experienced any negative after-effects. 

Mulligan said he plans to go to the doctor to get regular tests for toxic chemicals, just in case, even if OSHA has closed the matter. An OSHA official told him they couldn't investigate further because his complaint came in past their six-month statute of limitations.

In the meantime, the FBI is no longer using the former Gaston copper plant for training, according to Supervisory Special Agent Donald Wood, acting chief counsel for the FBI’s Columbia Division. The decision, he said, has nothing to do with Mulligan's concerns.

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Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.