Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.


Expand Messages
  • Fred Cohen
    The Junk Science of George W. Bush By Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Nation March 8, 2004 Issue As Jesuit schoolboys studying world history we learned that
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2004
      The Junk Science of George W. Bush
      By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
      The Nation

      March 8, 2004 Issue

      As Jesuit schoolboys studying world history we learned that Copernicus
      and Galileo self-censored for many decades their proofs that the earth
      revolved around the sun and that a less restrained heliocentrist,
      Giordano Bruno, was burned alive in 1600 for the crime of sound science.
      With the encouragement of our professor, Father Joyce, we marveled at
      the capacity of human leaders to corrupt noble institutions. Lust for
      power had caused the Catholic hierarchy to subvert the church's most
      central purpose--the search for existential truths.

      Today, flat-earthers within the Bush Administration--aided by right-wing
      allies who have produced assorted hired guns and conservative think
      tanks to further their goals--are engaged in a campaign to suppress
      science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the
      Inquisition. Sometimes, rather than suppress good science, they simply
      order up their own. Meanwhile, the Bush White House is purging,
      censoring and blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens
      the profits of the Administration's corporate paymasters or challenges
      the ideological underpinnings of their radical anti-environmental
      agenda. Indeed, so extreme is this campaign that more than sixty
      scientists, including Nobel laureates and medical experts, released a
      statement on February 18 that accuses the Bush Administration of
      deliberately distorting scientific fact "for partisan political ends."

      I've had my own experiences with Torquemada's modern successors, both
      personal and related to my work as an environmental lawyer and advocate
      working for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Waterkeeper

      At the time of the World Trade Center catastrophe on September 11, 2001,
      I had just opened an office at 115 Broadway, cater-corner from the World
      Trade Center and within the official security zone to which access was,
      afterward, restricted for several months. Upon returning to the office
      in October my partner, Kevin Madonna, suffered a burning throat, nausea
      and a headache that was still pounding twenty-four hours after he left
      the building. Despite the Environmental Protection Agency's claims that
      air quality was safe, Kevin refused to return and we closed the office.
      Many workers did not have that option; their employers relied on the
      EPA's nine press releases between September and December of 2001
      reassuring the public about the wholesome air quality downtown. We have
      since learned that the government was lying to us. An Inspector
      General's report released last August revealed that the EPA's data did
      not support those assurances and that its press releases were being
      drafted or doctored by White House officials intent on reopening Wall

      On September 13, just two days after the terror attack, the EPA
      announced that asbestos dust in the area was "very low" or entirely
      absent. On September 18 the agency said the air was "safe to breathe."
      In fact, more than 25 percent of the samples collected by the EPA before
      September 18 showed presence of asbestos above the 1 percent safety
      benchmark. Among outside studies, one performed by scientists at the
      University of California, Davis, found particulates at levels never
      before seen in more than 7,000 similar tests worldwide. A study being
      performed by Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has found that 78 percent of
      rescue workers suffered lung ailments and 88 percent had ear, nose and
      throat problems in the months following the attack and that about half
      still had persistent lung and respiratory illnesses nine months to a
      year later.

      Dan Tishman, whose company was involved in the reconstruction at 140
      West Street, required his crews to wear respirators but recalls seeing
      many rescue and construction workers laboring unprotected--no doubt
      relying on the government's assurances. "The frustrating thing is that
      everyone just counts on the EPA to be the watchdog of public health," he
      says. "When that role is compromised, people can get hurt."

      I also recall the case of Dr. James Zahn, a nationally respected
      microbiologist with the Agriculture Department's research service, who
      accepted my invitation to speak to an April 2002 conference of more than
      1,000 family farm advocates and environmental and civic leaders in Clear
      Lake, Iowa. In a rigorous taxpayer-funded study, Zahn had identified
      bacteria that can make people sick--and that are resistant to
      antibiotics--in the air surrounding industrial-style hog farms. His
      studies proved that billions of these "superbugs" were traveling across
      property lines daily, endangering the health of neighbors and their
      herds. I was shocked when Zahn canceled his appearance on the day of
      the conference under orders from the Agriculture Department in
      Washington. I later uncovered a fax trail proving the order was
      prompted by lobbyists from the National Pork Producers Council. Zahn
      told me that his supervisor at the USDA, under pressure from the hog
      industry, had ordered him not to publish his study and that he had been
      forced to cancel more than a dozen public appearances at local planning
      boards and county health commissions seeking information about health
      impacts of industry mega-farms. Soon after my conference, Zahn resigned
      from the government in disgust.

      Ignoring Bad News

      The Bush Administration's first instinct when it comes to science has
      been to suppress, discredit or alter facts it doesn't like. Probably
      the best-known case is global warming. Over the past two years the
      Administration has done this to a dozen major government studies on
      global warming, as well as to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on
      Climate Change, in its own efforts to stall action to control industrial
      emissions. The list also includes major long-term studies by the
      federal government's National Research Council and National Academy of
      Sciences, and by scientific teams at the EPA, the National Oceanic and
      Atmospheric Administration and NASA, and a 2002 collaborative report by
      scientists at all three of those agencies.

      The Administration has taken special pains to shield Vice President Dick
      Cheney's old company, Halliburton, which is part of an industry that has
      contributed $58 million to Republicans since 2000. Halliburton is the
      leading practitioner of a process used in extracting oil and gas known
      as hydraulic fracturing, in which benzene is injected into underground
      formations. EPA scientists studying the process in 2002 found that it
      could contaminate ground-water supplies in excess of federal drinking
      water standards. A week after reporting their findings to Congressional
      staff members, however, they revised the data to indicate that benzene
      levels would not exceed government standards. In a letter to
      Representative Henry Waxman, EPA officials said the change was made
      based on "industry feedback."

      As a favor to utility and coal industries, America's largest mercury
      dischargers, the EPA sat for nine months on a report exposing the
      catastrophic impact on children's health of mercury, finally releasing
      it in February 2003. Among the findings of the report: The bloodstream
      of one in twelve US women is saturated with enough mercury to cause
      neurological damage, permanent IQ loss and a grim inventory of other
      diseases in their unborn children.

      The list goes on. In October 2001 Interior Secretary Gale Norton,
      responding to a Senate committee inquiry on the effects of oil drilling
      on caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, falsely claimed that
      the caribou would not be affected, because they calve outside the area
      targeted for drilling. She later explained that she somehow substituted
      "outside" for "inside." She also substituted findings from a study
      financed by an oil company for some of the ones that the Fish and
      Wildlife Service had prepared for her. In another case, according to
      the Wall Street Journal, Norton and White House political adviser Karl
      Rove pressed for changes that would allow diversion of substantial
      amounts of water from the Klamath River to benefit local supporters and
      agribusiness contributors. Some 34,000 endangered salmon were killed
      after National Marine Fisheries scientists altered their findings on the
      amount of water the salmon required. Environmentalists describe it as
      the largest fish kill in the history of the West. Mike Kelly, the
      fisheries biologist on the Klamath who drafted the biological opinion,
      told me that under the current plan coho salmon are probably headed for
      extinction. According to Kelly, "The morale is very low among
      scientists here. We are under pressure to get the right results. This
      Administration is putting the species at risk for political gain. And
      not just in the Klamath."

      Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, told me
      that the alteration and deletion of scientific information is now
      standard procedure at Interior. "It's hard to decide what is more
      demoralizing about the Administration's politicization of the scientific
      process," he said, "its disdain for professional scientists working for
      our government or its willingness to deceive the American public."

      Getting the Right Answer

      But suppressing or altering science can be a tricky business; the Bush
      Administration has found it easier at times simply to arrange to get the
      results it wants. A case in point is the decision in July by the EPA's
      regional office overseeing the western Everglades to accept a study
      financed predominantly by developers, which concludes that wetlands
      discharge more pollutants than they absorb. There was no peer review or
      public comment. With its approval, the EPA is giving developers credit
      for improving water quality by replacing natural wetlands with golf
      courses and other developments.

      The study was financed by the Water Enhancement and Restoration
      Committee, which was formed primarily by local developers and chaired by
      Rick Barber, the consultant for a golf course development for which the
      EPA had denied a permit because it would pollute surrounding waters and
      destroy wetlands. The study contradicts everything known about wetlands
      functioning, including a determination by more than twenty-five
      scientists and managers at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program that, on
      balance, wetlands do not generate nitrogen pollution. Bruce Boler, a
      biologist and water-quality specialist working for the EPA office,
      resigned in protest. Boler says the developers massaged the data to
      support their theory by evaluating samples collected near roads and
      bridges, where developments discharge pollutants. "It was like the
      politics trumped the science," he told us.

      In a similar case, last November the EPA cut a private deal with a
      pesticide manufacturer to take over federal studies of a pesticide it
      manufactures. Atrazine is the most heavily utilized weedkiller in
      America. First approved in 1958, by the 1980s it had been identified as
      a potential carcinogen associated with high incidences of prostate
      cancer among workers at manufacturing facilities. Testing by the US
      Geological Survey regularly finds alarming concentrations of Atrazine in
      drinking water across the corn belt. Even worse, last year scientists
      at the University of California, Berkeley, found that Atrazine at
      one-thirtieth the government's "safe" 3 parts per billion level causes
      grotesque deformities in frogs, including multiple sets of organs. And
      this year epidemiologists from the University of Missouri found
      reproductive consequences in humans associated with Atrazine, including
      male semen counts in farm communities that are 50 percent below normal.
      Iowa scientists are finding similar results in a current study.

      The Bush Administration reacted to the frightening findings not by
      banning this dangerous chemical, as the European Union has, but by
      taking the studies away from EPA scientists and, in an unprecedented
      move, giving the chemical's manufacturer, Switzerland-based Syngenta,
      control over federal research. In an interview with the Los Angeles
      Times, Sherry Ford, a spokesperson for Syngenta, praised without irony
      the advantages of having the company monitor its own product. "This is
      one way we can ensure it's not presenting any risk to the environment."

      In a dramatic expansion of this disturbing strategy, the Bush
      Administration now plans to systematically turn government science over
      to private industry by contracting out thousands of science jobs to
      compliant consultants already in the habit of massaging data to support
      corporate profits. The National Park Service is preparing a first phase
      of contracting reviews, involving about 1,800 positions, including
      biologists, archeologists and environmental specialists. Later phases
      may entail replacement of 11,000 employees, more than two-thirds of the
      service's permanent work force.

      At least federal employees enjoy civil service and whistleblower
      protection intended to allow them to operate professionally and
      independently. Private contractors don't enjoy the same level of
      protection. "You can shop for the right contractor to give you the kind
      of result you want," says Frank Buono, a retired Park Service veteran
      who now serves on the board of a nonprofit whistleblower protection

      As a Last Resort, Fire the Messenger

      Most federal employees have gone along with the Bush Administration's
      wishes, but a few have tried to stand up for sound science. The results
      are predictable. When a team of government biologists indicated that
      the Army Corps of Engineers was violating the Endangered Species Act in
      managing the flow of the Missouri River, the group was quickly replaced
      by an industry-friendly panel. (In an unexpected--and
      fortunate--development, the new panel ultimately declined to adopt the
      White House's pro-barge-industry position and upheld the decision to
      manage the river to protect imperiled species.) Similarly, last April
      the EPA suddenly dismantled an advisory panel that had spent nearly
      twenty-one months developing rules for stringent regulation of
      industrial emissions of mercury [see Alterman and Green, page 14].

      Or consider the case of Tony Oppegard and Jack Spadaro, members of a
      team of federal geodesic engineers selected to investigate the collapse
      of barriers that held back a coal slurry pond in Kentucky containing
      toxic wastes from mountaintop strip-mining. The 300-million-gallon
      spill was the largest in American history and, according to the EPA, the
      greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United
      States. Black lava-like toxic sludge containing sixty poisonous
      chemicals choked and sterilized up to 100 miles of rivers and creeks and
      poisoned the drinking water in seventeen communities. Unlike in other
      slurry disasters, no one died, but hundreds of residents were sickened
      by contact with contaminated water.

      The investigation had broad implications for the viability of
      mountaintop mining, which involves literally lopping off mountaintops to
      get access to the underlying coal. It is a process beloved by coal
      barons because it practically dispenses with the need for human labor
      and thus increases industry profits. Spadaro, the nation's leading
      expert on slurry spills, recalls, "We were geotechnical engineers
      determined to find the truth. We simply wanted to get to the heart of
      the matter--find out what happened and why, and to prevent it from
      happening again. But all that was thwarted at the top of the agency by
      Bush appointees who obstructed professionals trying to do their jobs."

      The Bush Administration appointees all had coal industry pedigrees.
      Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (the wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch
      McConnell, the Senate's biggest recipient of industry largesse)
      appointed Dave Lauriski, a former executive with Energy West Mining, as
      the new director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which
      oversaw the investigation. His deputy assistant secretary was John
      Caylor, an Anamax Mining alumnus. His other deputy assistant, John
      Correll, had worked for both Amax and Peabody Coal.

      Oppegard, the leader of the federal team, was fired on the day Bush was
      inaugurated in 2001. All eight members of the team except Spadaro
      signed off on a whitewashed investigation report. Spadaro, like the
      others, was harassed but flat-out refused to sign. In April of 2001
      Spadaro resigned from the team and filed a complaint with the Inspector
      General of the Labor Department. Last June 4 he was placed on
      administrative leave--a prelude to getting fired.

      Bush Administration officials accuse Spadaro of "abusing his authority"
      for allowing a handicapped instructor to have free room and board at a
      training academy he oversees, an arrangement approved by his superiors.
      An internal report vindicated Spadaro's criticisms of the investigation,
      but the Administration is still going after his job. "I've been
      regulating mining since 1966," Spadaro told me. "This is the most
      lawless administration I've encountered. They have no regard for
      protecting miners or the people in mining communities. They are without

      Science, like theology, reveals transcendent truths about a changing
      world. At their best, scientists are moral individuals whose business
      is to seek the truth. Over the past two decades industry and
      conservative think tanks have invested millions of dollars to corrupt
      science. They distort the truth about tobacco, pesticides, ozone
      depletion, dioxin, acid rain and global warming. In their attempt to
      undermine the credible basis for public action (by positing that all
      opinions are politically driven and therefore any one is as true as any
      other), they also undermine belief in the integrity of the scientific

      Now Congress and this White House have used federal power for the same
      purpose. Led by the President, the Republicans have gutted scientific
      research budgets and politicized science within the federal agencies.
      The very leaders who so often condemn the trend toward moral relativism
      are fostering and encouraging the trend toward scientific relativism.
      The very ideologues who derided Bill Clinton as a liar have now
      institutionalized dishonesty and made it the reigning culture of
      America's federal agencies.

      The Bush Administration has so violated and corrupted the institutional
      culture of government agencies charged with scientific research that it
      could take a generation for them to recover their integrity even if Bush
      is defeated this fall. Says Princeton University scientist Michael
      Oppenheimer, "If you believe in a rational universe, in enlightenment,
      in knowledge and in a search for the truth, this White House is an
      absolute disaster."


      Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense
      Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, is working on a book
      about President Bush's environmental policies, Crimes Against Nature, to be
      published this spring by HarperCollins.*
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.