The Junk Science of George W. Bush | The Nation


The Junk Science of George W. Bush

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Getting the Right Answer

About the Author

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper...

But suppressing or altering science can be a tricky business; the Bush Administration has found it easier at times simply to arrange to get the results it wants. A case in point is the decision in July by the EPA's regional office overseeing the western Everglades to accept a study financed predominantly by developers, which concludes that wetlands discharge more pollutants than they absorb. There was no peer review or public comment. With its approval, the EPA is giving developers credit for improving water quality by replacing natural wetlands with golf courses and other developments.

The study was financed by the Water Enhancement and Restoration Committee, which was formed primarily by local developers and chaired by Rick Barber, the consultant for a golf course development for which the EPA had denied a permit because it would pollute surrounding waters and destroy wetlands. The study contradicts everything known about wetlands functioning, including a determination by more than twenty-five scientists and managers at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program that, on balance, wetlands do not generate nitrogen pollution. Bruce Boler, a biologist and water-quality specialist working for the EPA office, resigned in protest. Boler says the developers massaged the data to support their theory by evaluating samples collected near roads and bridges, where developments discharge pollutants. "It was like the politics trumped the science," he told us.

In a similar case, last November the EPA cut a private deal with a pesticide manufacturer to take over federal studies of a pesticide it manufactures. Atrazine is the most heavily utilized weedkiller in America. First approved in 1958, by the 1980s it had been identified as a potential carcinogen associated with high incidences of prostate cancer among workers at manufacturing facilities. Testing by the US Geological Survey regularly finds alarming concentrations of Atrazine in drinking water across the corn belt. Even worse, last year scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that Atrazine at one-thirtieth the government's "safe" 3 parts per billion level causes grotesque deformities in frogs, including multiple sets of organs. And this year epidemiologists from the University of Missouri found reproductive consequences in humans associated with Atrazine, including male semen counts in farm communities that are 50 percent below normal. Iowa scientists are finding similar results in a current study.

The Bush Administration reacted to the frightening findings not by banning this dangerous chemical, as the European Union has, but by taking the studies away from EPA scientists and, in an unprecedented move, giving the chemical's manufacturer, Switzerland-based Syngenta, control over federal research. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sherry Ford, a spokesperson for Syngenta, praised without irony the advantages of having the company monitor its own product. "This is one way we can ensure it's not presenting any risk to the environment."

In a dramatic expansion of this disturbing strategy, the Bush Administration now plans to systematically turn government science over to private industry by contracting out thousands of science jobs to compliant consultants already in the habit of massaging data to support corporate profits. The National Park Service is preparing a first phase of contracting reviews, involving about 1,800 positions, including biologists, archeologists and environmental specialists. Later phases may entail replacement of 11,000 employees, more than two-thirds of the service's permanent work force.

At least federal employees enjoy civil service and whistleblower protection intended to allow them to operate professionally and independently. Private contractors don't enjoy the same level of protection. "You can shop for the right contractor to give you the kind of result you want," says Frank Buono, a retired Park Service veteran who now serves on the board of a nonprofit whistleblower protection organization.

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