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Court Orders DEP To Release Documents on Industry Lobbying on Science Board

[Update: Star Ledger story: N.J. DEP must release names of 108 candidates for Science Advisory Board – Prior SL coverage: NJ environmental groups fear science panels will be pro-development end update]

Back in September, we filed a lawsuit against DEP under the NJ Open Public Records Act (OPRA). We were seeking to obtain documents that showed how industry was exerting political pressure behind the scenes to secure appointment of industry scientists to the newly created Science Advisory Board.

DEP denied our OPRA request in an effort to cover that lobbying up, so we sued them (see: New Front in War on Science – Lawsuit Filed to Obtain Smoking Guns and This is Why We Need Transparency at DEP).

DEP’s lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office filed righteous legal briefs that defended DEP’s OPRA secrecy because they claimed that public disclosure of this information would compromise the integrity of the SAB selection process.

DEP claimed they needed to keep the whole thing secret to avoid “unwanted pressure to select candidates based on the goals and philosophies of groups that had this information“. DEP argued that public disclosure of this information might even “cast a pall over the process” and compromise “independent scientific peer review” and undermine “public confidence in the process” (see page 7 of Judge Feinberg’s opinion).

But literally at the same time DEP lawyers were filing those legal briefs and making those righteous claims about protecting the integrity of the process from political pressures, in a remarkable show of hypocrisy, DEP was actually meeting with lobbyists for the chemical industry to discuss SAB appointments of industry scientists and consultants (including Dupont)!

Here is what was actually going on behind the scenes at DEP – we caught them red handed – and ironically, this meeting was held on October 1, 2009, the same day we filed our lawsuit:

We Won! See PEER press release , including links to Judge Feinberg’s opinion below:


Successful Open Records Suit to Reveal Industry Sponsorship of Science Board Picks

Trenton – A state superior court has ordered the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to surrender records on industry efforts to pack a new Science Advisory Board, according to the ruling posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the court order, the names, resume’s and sponsorship letters will be released to PEER.

On September 29, 2009 PEER sued DEP for violating the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) when it denied a PEER request seeking public records related to industry nominees and political lobbying for the Science Advisory Board (SAB). The DEP had broadly claimed that requested documents were OPRA-exempt, claiming that information about pending Board appointments is analogous to job applicant forms and thus confidential, even though SAB members would not be DEP employees and would be unpaid.

In a decision dated February 18, 2010, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg brushed aside DEP’s legal position as without merit and ordered the agency to provide the SAB materials to PEER, whom she declared the prevailing party. PEER’s case was argued by Michael Pisauro of the Princeton-based firm of Frascella & Pisauro, LLC.

In her ruling Judge Feinberg indicated that DEP had “finalized its recommendations of candidates for the SAB on January 15, 2010″ but that a final decision by holdover Commissioner Mark Mauriello was “held in abeyance” at the behest of the incoming Christie administration. That list of final recommendations contains several affiliated with DuPont, private water companies, and some of New Jersey’s largest consulting firms which advise industry on environmental standards and permit requirements. Notably, Mauriello had met with the Chemistry Industry Council concerning the composition of the SAB.

“Regulated industry and their consultants have an obvious and enormous interest in influencing DEP scientific positions,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that the controversial 12-member board was created by former Commissioner and current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson when she abolished the DEP Division of Science & Research. “Our concern is that advisers with an economic dog in the fight will bring biases that make them unsuitable sources for objective scientific advice.”

The Administrative Order creating the SAB specifies a conflict of interest review of nominees but does not specify what standards should be applied to determine “financial or personal interest”, nor does it define what those terms mean in the context of the SAB. In recent months, DEP scientific studies have been subjected to intense industry lobbying efforts on public health topics ranging from the effects of chemicals, such as PFOAs made by DuPont, to cement dust blowing through Camden.

“We went to court because the selection of scientific advisers should be done out in the open so that any industry ties are known in advance”, Wolfe added. “We call on the Christie administration to reconsider the SAB concept and provide real safeguards, so that affected industries cannot use the process to inject influence and delay, weaken, or derail scientific assessments that are used to set health standards”


Read Judge Feinberg’s opinion

Look at the PEER complaint and what led up to it

View industry affiliations of nominees chosen by Corzine administration

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