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Federal officials spinning science to suit agenda, critics claim

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Science and Technology,Watchdog,Michal Conger

U.S. Department of the Interior officials regularly use distorted scientific research to advance ideological agendas, according to a California scientist.

ÒI suggested that this was circular reasoning that would lead to more of the same -- bias, a lack of independence, and a resulting whitewash.Ó -- Cory Goodman

"Over at Interior, science is taking backseat to ideology," Cory Goodman told the Washington Examiner in a recent interview. He pointed to DOI's actions against the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is nearing the end of a long battle in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The company is struggling to keep operating in Drakes Estero, part of a national seashore area in Marin County, Calif. Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided in November 2012 against renewing the permit that allowed owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny to farm on public land there.

Goodman, a neurobiologist and elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, took on the National Park Service in 2007 when a Marin County supervisor asked him to evaluate National Park Service claims that oyster farming was harming harbor seals and plant life in Drakes Bay. Goodman took on the analysis "out of public service," he added, and has not been paid for his work.

Goodman found no support for the claims. Instead, he said he discovered that NPS was pulling data from unrelated studies, including a 50-year-old work on oyster feces in Japan and another on jet skies in New Jersey, to justify its environmental analysis of the company.

"That is scientific misconduct, there is no question," he said. "That is a pattern."

Since DOI created a scientific integrity policy in 2011 to hold officials accountable for the integrity of their research, it has closed 12 misconduct claims, including one filed with the department by Goodman in 2012. Each was decided in DOI's favor.

Having such complaints against DOI be filed with and adjudicated by the department is a conflict of interest, Goodman said. He wrote to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy requesting that officials there oversee an investigation into his claims of DOI misconduct, but was told to filed his complaint with DOI anyway.

"I suggested that this was circular reasoning that would lead to more of the same  bias, a lack of independence, and a resulting whitewash," he told the Washington Examiner.

Another case in which DOI absolved itself of wrongdoing was a Bureau of Reclamation environmental impact study on removing dams on Oregon's Klamath River.

Paul Houser, who was the scientific integrity officer for the Bureau, told the Examiner the bureau was "distorting" data to support dam removal because it was a priority for Salazar.

"You can do a lot of things without going and actually changing the data," Houser, now a professor at George Mason University, said. "What I saw in my case ... was that they were taking a very one-sided view of the scientific findings."

Houser said the bureau forced him out in February 2012 after he raised concerns of biased research. He filed a scientific integrity complaint and a whistleblower claim with the department.

The DOI Office of the Inspector General dropped its whistleblower investigation after five days and passed it off to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which handles personnel conflicts. OSC resolved the issue in December 2012.

Bureau scientists also presented misleading data in their reports, Houser said. The environmental analysis estimated dam removal would boost the river's Chinook Salmon population by an unusually precise 81.4 percent.

The number was actually the median estimate from a separate study that predicted dam removal would result in anything from a 59.9 percent drop to an 881.4 percent growth in the salmon population, Houser said, citing a report in Nature magazine.

Another case that raised allegations of biased science was the DOI rewrite of the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone rule. A 2011 draft of new coal mining regulations projected that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's proposal would wipe out 7,000 jobs to protect streams.

The House Natural Resources Committee recently sent a letter renewing its previous requests for information from DOI on why it sided with environmental groups to throw out the 2008 rule and spend almost $8 million creating a new one.

After the draft job impact estimates came out in 2011, audio recordings obtained by the committee show OSM Counsel to Director Joseph Pizarchik telling contractors to do the impact statement as if the 2008 rule had been implemented to change the numbers.

The team refused to use "fabricated" methods to soften the job loss numbers, according to November 2011 testimony before the Natural Resources Committee by Steven Gardner, president of consulting firm ECSI, one of the subcontractors.

OSM also pressured the contractors to "revisit" job loss estimates to produce a lesser economic impact, Gardner said in his testimony.

After ignoring repeated requests for information, DOI in March and April sent the Natural Resources Committee a batch of documents  most of which were already publicly available  that didn't satisfy the panel's request, according to a committee spokesman.

Another case of data manipulation, according to the committee, was DOI's January 2012 ban on new uranium mining on federal land in Arizona.

In his decision, Salazar said the moratorium would protect water resources, but the draft environmental impact statement by the National Park Service found no danger of contamination.

An NPS scientist said in an internal email obtained by the committee that the analysis was purposely confusing to create an appearance of harm.

"The DEIS (draft environmental impact statement) goes to great lengths in an attempt to establish impacts to water resources from uranium mining. It fails to do so, but instead creates enough confusion and obfuscation of hydrologic principles to create the illusion that there could be adverse impacts if uranium mining occurred," wrote hydrologist Larry Martin in a March 2011 email to his supervisor, who said in a subsequent email Martin "basically has it right."

"This is obviously a touchy case where the hard science doesn't strongly support a policy position," Bill Jackson wrote, and suggested the best way to "finesse" the data would be to suggest that NPS claim it needs to exercise caution until data show conclusively that mining won't contaminate ground water.

DOI has not complied with the committee's investigation into whether OSM intentionally manipulated its data to support the moratorium.

A spokesman for DOI declined to comment for this story.

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