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DEP compromises scientific integrity and public health

DEP issues a “gag order” on internal review and restrictions on public release of scientific studies
[Update – 6/5/09 – Star Ledger editorial shares my concern: New Jersey keeping environmental records under wraps
http://blog.nj.com/njv_editorial_page/2009/06/new_jersey_keeping_environment.html
Today’s Star Ledger reports:

Environmentalists rip DEP proposal as a ‘gag order’
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
BY BRIAN T. MURRAY
Star-Ledger Staff
The state Department of Environmental Protection proposed restrictions yesterday on the public release of its scientific studies and reports, which environmental groups lambasted as a sweeping “gag order” spurred by a controversy over chromium pollution in Hudson County.
The commotion surrounds written guidelines from Jeanne Herb, the DEP’s director of policy, planning and science, against employees disclosing technical and scientific reports — even if they are the subject of an Open Public Records Act request — until they are approved by upper management and the press office. The directive follows the April release of a report by DEP scientists concluding a new, stricter soil cleanup standard is needed for hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, because the cancer-causing substance is riskier than previously believed.
http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/jersey/index.ssf?/base/news-14/1243915636194930.xml&coll=1
(more on the flip)


The Washington DC based watchdog group PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) blew the whistle on this DEP attempt to suppress and politically control science. In a press release, PEER disclosed the leaked DEP memo, written by Jeanne Herb who works in the DEP Commissioner’s Office as Director of Policy, Planning and Science:
NEW JERSEY SLAPS GAG ORDER ON ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTISTS — Embarrassing Chromium Study Prompts Management Review of Scientific Findings
http://www.peer.org/news/news_id.php?row_id=1199
The DEP memo can be read here:
http://www.peer.org/docs/nj/09_01_06_njdep_gag_memo.pdf
I will be writing more on this and providing examples that can illustrate why this is so corrupt and how it allows polluters to benefit at the expense of public health.
But for now, I’d like to make a few points:
The DEP press flack defends the Order with the following deeply cynical pack of lies:
“This department is completely transparent. What is being discussed here are copies of draft reports that come out before they are finalized or even peer reviewed,” said DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura. “What is wrong with suggesting that scientific reports, with the material they contain, be finalized before they are released? It’s not to say that the information won’t come out.”
First of all, the Gag Order itself is not transparent because it is stamped “deliberative”. This is done to exploit a loophole in the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) that exempts “deliberative” documents. The word “deliberative” has a legal meaning related to documents intended to support agency decisions. The Gag Order was not “deliberative” and it supported no decisions. Instead, it directed DEP staff to comply with specific requirements before scientific documents are released to the public. For the same reason, corrupt tobacco industry managers used to copy lawyers on scientific studies that proved that smoking caused cancer, to keep those studies secret under the “attorney client” privilege. The asbestos and chemical industry did this as well. Now a public agency, DEP, is engaging in these same transparently corrupt practices.
Second of all, the whole purpose of the Gag Order was to restrict public release of scientific information and allow DEP press office and political appointees to review, modify, and suppress science that did not fit the policy or political agenda of DEP or the Governor. Until and unless a DEP scientific document met their political, media and management approvals, it remained “draft” and was prohibited from release and exempt from OPRA. DEP managers could sit on a study virtually forever. The whole point of the Gag order was to reduce transparency and frustrate public right to know, which are the purposes of OPRA. To now claim that DEP is “completely transparent” is beyond Orwell, and a lie so large that it should be grounds for dismissal of any public servant.
Third, this has nothing to do with scientific peer review. The Gag Order established specific procedures for internal DEP political, press office, and management review. To claim that this is related to scientific peer review is another egregious lie.
Fourth, reminiscent of Pontius Pilate, Makatura cynically asks:
“What is wrong with suggesting that scientific reports, with the material they contain, be finalized before they are released?
The answer is that there is PLENTY WRONG.
When a report is written by a research scientist, and then “finalized” by a group of DEP press officers, political appointees, and managers, it destroys scientific integrity. The Bush administration was pilloried for how they allowed political hacks to tone down the findings and revise scientific reports on global warming to fit the Bush political message and policy. The DEP Gag Order actually is worse than the Bush Adminstration’s corrupt practices.
For specific examples of the michief allowed under the DEP Gag Order, consider this:
“* In September 2002, the [Bush] Administration removed a section on climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual air pollution report. This report had contained a section on climate change for the past five years.
* The New York Times reported that the White House tried to force the EPA to substantially alter another report on climate change in 2003. Interviews with current and former EPA staff revealed that the Administration demanded a number of amendments including the insertion of a discredited study of temperature records which was funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute.”
For Full Report, see:
Scientific Integrity in Policy Making – Investigation of the Bush administration’s abuse of science
http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/investigations_and_surveys/reports-scientific-integrity.html
More to follow on this story. Let’s hope this story has legs, and inquisitive journalists start asking DEP tough questions about specific studies that are impacted by the Gag Order. For startes, here are some examples from the Bush Administration:
http://www.rhtp.org/science/documents/Scientific_Integrity_at_Risk.pdf
* Full disclosure: I worked with Jeanne Herb while at DEP from 2002-2004 and with PEER as NJ PEER Director from 2005-2008.
[Note: can’t seem to post this comment reply to mcmid, so I will put it in the body of the post:
mcmid – I share you concern about how the NJ environmental groups endorse political candidates. They set the bar way too low and then withhold criticism of those they endorse. This allows politicians to enjoy a “green” image without earning it and sometimes allows then to be hostile to the environment without accountability.
But the blame for all of Corzine’s environmental failures can’t be lain at their feet. The business community and the legislature exert constant pressure on DEP to be more “business friendly” and to not enforce environmental laws.
Plus, DEP has been under miserable leadership and management for years, and had budgets persistently slashed.
I assume that Corzine is not aware of DEP’s Gag Order, so it is tough to blame him for it. The media should ask him if he supports it or will order its revocation and replacement with real transparency and public right to know, as mandated by OPRA.
In terms of who the enviro’s will back in November, that seems obvious because the Republican candidates are bashing DEP and have no environmental platforms.
Last, I am not affiliated with any environmental group, have not endorsed Corzine, and have written extensive criticism of his policies here. So, I don’t know who you are referring to when you say “you” have no one to blame but yourself. I assume you are not targeting me.
Wolfe

  1. mcmid
    June 2nd, 2009 at 09:57 | #1

    It’s just more open and transparent government, courtesy of Corzine. Would you like to bet who the environmental groups will back this November? You ahve no one to blame but yourselves.

  2. DEPEngineer
    June 2nd, 2009 at 13:41 | #2

    I feel like I’m living in a George Orwell novel. I want to wake up and find it was just nightmare.
    If Jeanne Herb acted on her own – she has to be fired. What are her qualifications to interpret and then determine whether science should be public or not? Wait we pay our taxes to support scientists to do their job. No one has the authority to take that away. Especially someone who wasn’t elected.
    What are Herb’s qualifications to head research scientists? Someone thought she was just a journalist. Are tax dollars being spent on journalist instead of scientists?
    If you are going to cut staff at DEP – start with the liberal arts degrees.

  3. ZoharLaor
    June 2nd, 2009 at 13:45 | #3

    What a disgrace to the state!
    Shame for all of us for paying a premium price for less than mediocre administrators to run our state. Administrators who see their first civic duty as pushing through political agendas instead of adhering to their position of public advocates.
    DEPEngineer – it sure would be nice if someone inside the DEP sent hidden reports to be published.

  4. nohesitation
    June 2nd, 2009 at 14:04 | #4

    Dear DEPEngineer – Orwell knew that control of information was the coin of the realm in politics and political and economic power.
    You raise very interesting points – it is not clear whetehr Herb was acting on her own or following orders. I agree that if she was acting on her own, she should be fired. I do not know her academic background, but having worked with her I know she is not technically trained. I also know that Herb is a political appointee and holdover from the McGreevey Administration.

  5. nohesitation
    June 2nd, 2009 at 14:08 | #5

    Dear ZoharLaor – Thanks, I share your outrage over crap like this.
    The concept of the public interest has been missing from DEP for many years. It is a self serving bureaucracy full of careerists out for themselves, not public servants.
    I am working on some reports suppressed under this Gag Order and will report on a MAJOR one very soon.
    More shoes to drop on this story.
    If any DEP staffer have more specific documents, please send with complete annonimity to me at
    PO Box #1
    Ringoes, NJ
    08551
    or via email bill_wolfe@comcast.net
    Wolfe

  6. DEPEngineer
    June 2nd, 2009 at 14:47 | #6

    Environmentalists should start requesting reports and documents now through OPRA on all developments, contaminated sites, and environmental permits before they are considered deliberative. There is no guarantee information on contaminated sites will be available once the program is taken over by private contractors.
    You may buy a property on a brownfield site – and later find out toxic vapors are coming into your home. That happens.

  7. 14yrbumpkin
    June 2nd, 2009 at 21:06 | #7

    And the people that they have writing the regs for the licensed site remediation “professionals” are the same suckups that promoted the LSRP in the first place. And the person writing the groundwater regs has NEVER run a groundwater investigation herself and wouldn’t know which end of a drilling rig goes in the ground.

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