The Environmental Protection Agency is at it again.
Career scientists with real knowledge about the state of the nation's environment, its effect on our health and what we might do about it are being sidelined in favor of political appointees.
The political news today is dominated by the political interference that dominated hiring at the Justice Department under former AG Alberto Gonzalez. But the Washington Post also uncovers another example of political interference at another federal agency. The EPA is no stranger to this type of political interference, as a pattern of intimidation against speaking out or discussing scientific conclusions has been well documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others.
According to the Post:
"A senior official in the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement office has warned managers they should direct inquiries from reporters, congressional investigators and the agency's inspector general to designated officials rather than answering the questions themselves, according to an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.
"The June 16 e-mail from Robbi Farrell, who heads the agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, instructs managers to remind employees "at your next staff meeting" that if they "are contacted directly by the IG's office or GAO requesting information of any kind . . . Please do not respond to questions or make any statements." Farrell issued the same instructions for media inquiries, saying rank-and-file agency officials should "forward the call or e-mail" to one of two press officers and copy her on the exchange."
Next to vetting immigration attorneys based on their views on abortion this may seem minor. But having been a reporter trying to get information from government agencies, I know how critical the relationship is between knowledgeable scientists and the reporters they trust to relay their results to the public. At NASA, James Hansen's ability to speak out about global warming was hamstrung by this type of policy. With the EPA dealing with issues from drinking water quality to the safety of the air we breathe, the toxicity of the products we buy and the pesticide residue allowed on our foods, it's critical that unbiased information flow from agency scientists to the public.
When a scientist is so well established and credible as Dr. Hansen, he can buck the system without necessarily threatening his own career. Other scientists, working on other issues, may not feel so secure. In that case, a reporter's questions would be filtered through a press officer whose job is often less to explain the science than to spin it so that it matches his or her boss's political positions.
If the link between scientist and reporter is cut off, but the back-room conversations between industry lobbyist and political appointee remains intact, then the agency's decisions may not reflect the best interests of the American public.
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