Survey Finds Bush Administration Interfering with EPA Scientists

WASHINGTON, DC, April 24, 2008 (ENS) – The Bush administration has frequently meddled with scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a survey released today by a scientific advocacy group. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that nearly two-thirds of the 1,586 staff EPA scientists who responded to a questionnaire complained of recent political interference with their work.

The reported interference is greatest in offices where scientists write regulations and conduct risk assessments. “Our investigation found an agency in crisis,” said Francesca Grifo, director of Union of Concerned Scientists’s Scientific Integrity Program, who contends the report reflects an effort by the administration to distort science to “accommodate a narrow political agenda.”

The investigation shows that researchers “are generally continuing to do their work, but their scientific findings are tossed aside when it comes time to write regulations,” said Grifo.

The report is the latest addition to a long list of complaints by scientists across the federal government who say the Bush administration has inappropriately interfered with their work and frequently manipulated science for the benefit of industry.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS, has conducted similar surveys with staff at the Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and found comparable allegations of political meddling.

The advocacy group also published a report on climate science last year, detailing significant interference by the Bush administration with climate scientists at seven federal agencies.

This latest report contains complaints that political appointees have manipulated EPA scientific findings and analyses. Agency scientists reported inappropriate editing of documents, pressure from political appointees to scientific methods and findings, and needless delays of scientific reports.

EPA scientists in the field verify environmental
sampling, monitoring, and measurement
technologies. (Photo courtesy EPA)

The survey reports concern by agency scientists over political meddling with EPA’s scientific assessments of climate change and with the science supporting regulation of mercury and other air pollutants.

Agency scientists also complained of interference with EPA’s assessment of toxic chemicals and pesticides and with its oversight of groundwater contamination.

UCS sent its survey to more than 5,400 EPA scientists at the agency’s headquarters, research laboratories and 10 regional offices.

Of the 1,586 who responded, 60 percent reported they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in the past five years.

More than 500 EPA scientists knew of “many” or “some” cases “where EPA political appointees had inappropriately involved themselves in scientific decisions,” according to the study.

Nearly 400 scientists, some 31 percent, reported misstatements by EPA officials that misrepresented scientists’ findings, UCS said.

The report said 22 percent complained of political appointees using selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.

Scientists also reported concerns about being able to openly discuss their work and about half said agency policy often fails to make proper use of its scientific judgements.

The report highlighted concern about the influence of the White House Office of Management and Budget, OMB, which has broad power to review regulations.

“Currently, OMB is allowed to force or make changes as they want, and rules are held hostage until this happens,” said a scientist at the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation who wishes to be unidentified criticizing the administration. “OMB’s power needs to be checked as time after time they weaken rulemakings and policy decisions to favor industry.”

EPA officials could not be reached for comment by press time, but agency statements indicate the Bush administration is not overly concerned about the report.

EPA scientist prepares to test sensors for detecting
changes in water quality that would result
from the intentional release of contaminants.
(Photo courtesy OMB)

The agency carefully values its scientists and carefully weighs their assessments along with other concerns when forming policy, according to an EPA spokesman, who pointed out that agency chief Stephen Johnson is a career EPA scientist with nearly three decades of experience at the agency.

But Johnson has been under fire for much of his three-year tenure as head of the EPA, most recently for a decision regarding federal air quality standards for smog-forming ozone.

In March, Johnson announced a tightening of the ozone rules, but he did not go as far as the agency’s science advisory board recommended.

Democrats – along with environmentalists, public health advocacy groups and state air officials – widely criticized Johnson’s decision. The chair of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee has summoned the EPA chief to explain himself at a hearing early next month.

In a letter sent today, Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, told Johnson to expect additional questions about the Union of Concerned Scientists survey.

Waxman called the findings of the survey “disturbing” said they suggest “a pattern of ignoring and manipulating science in EPA’s decisionmaking.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, echoed that concern and said he would push for an investigation by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The survey “is a scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s repeated efforts to twist, misuse, and ignore scientific facts in favor of special interests,” Whitehouse said.

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