EPA scientists report political interference

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds/FILE
President Bush smiles after announcing Steve Johnson, left, as his nominee for EPA Administrator, at the White House, Friday, March 4, 2005. Johnson, a career government employee, had been with the agency for 24 years.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 889 of 1,586 staff scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency reported that they have experienced political interference in their work in the past five years.

"Our investigation found an agency in crisis," said Francesca Grifo, director of the nonprofit environmental agency's Scientific Integrity Program. "Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. That's 900 too many. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health, and our democracy itself."

The report included dozens of interviews with current and former EPA staffers, analysis of government documents, and a questionnaire sent to 5,419 EPA scientists, to which 1,586 responded. Among its findings:

– 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years.– 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional "statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists' findings."
– 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced "selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome."

– 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document."

– Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often.
– Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA's work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.

Nearly 100 of the scientists interviewed said that the main culprit is the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

"OMB and the White House have, in some cases, compromised the integrity of EPA rules and policies; their influence, largely hidden from the public and driven by industry lobbying, has decreased the stringency of proposed regulations for non-scientific, political reasons," said one anonymous EPA scientist. "Because the real reasons can't be stated, the regulations contain a scientific rationale with little or no merit."

Reuters reports that an EPA spokesman denied the allegations, saying that the OMB leaves the science to the professionals.

"Certainly OMB plays a policy role," [EPA spokesman Johnathan] Shradar said by telephone. "It's important that there is inter-agency cooperation. There's not interference against the scientific work that they're doing, that's still highly respected and taken into account."

The report comes as the EPA is under close scrutiny from lawmakers. Congress is currently investigating the chemical industry's influence on the agency's new chemical toxicity review process, as well as the agency's rejection of California's request to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. Congress is also investigating political meddling on the EPA's lowering of smog standards.

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