Thursday, April 24, 2008


... is the number of scientists who personally experienced political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists mailed questionnaires to 5,5oo scientists who work at the E.P.A. Of the 1,586 who responsed, more than half had witnessed interference during the past five years. In some cases the interference came from the Office of Management and Budget, and at other times from lobbyists.

Survey participants included employees with training in geology, engineering, life science, toxicology and chemistry, although not necessarily at the graduate level. More than 6 in 10 respondents have been at the agency for a decade or longer. Respondents worked at headquarters, 10 regional offices and 12 EPA laboratories. Those most likely to report political interference work in offices involved in writing regulations or conducting risk assessments of potentially harmful agents, the advocacy group said.

Conducted between June and September of last year, the survey was not based on a random sample and its findings are not scientific. But Grifo contended that it represents the first attempt to more broadly assess a problem that has frequently surfaced in anecdotal reports alleging the pollution of science by political considerations at the nation's premier environmental agency.

For instance, a congressional committee recently reported that EPA staff members had determined in December that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health, but the regulatory process stalled after the EPA forwarded the findings to the White House.

The EPA also drew fire last month for weakening its new limits on smog-forming ozone after a last-minute intervention by President Bush. And Johnson was criticized for his decision in December to deny California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs.
Whereas at one time I might have been surprised by this report, reports of political interference within government agencies have become far too common. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still sorting out decisions inappropriately influenced by Interior appointees. Independent reviewers castigated the Service for reducing the critical habitat designated for northern spotted owls in deference to logging interests, a finding confirmed by a second set of reviewers. The Vice President personally intervened in several cases involving endangered species. Recently we learned that the administration had deliberately made it more difficult to list species under the Endangered Species Act; as a result, two unique animal populations have become extinct. Meanwhile, environmental protections are being tossed aside wholesale to build a wall across the southern border.

That list only covers one agency in one department. Similar depth and breadth of political interference has been documented across many other regulatory agencies as well. The constant stream of such reports is numbing and undermines confidence in the government. We need our federal agencies to function well so that we have clean air and water, protected natural resources, healthy food, and safe medications. January 20, 2009, cannot come soon enough!