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The Junk Science of George W. Bush | The Nation

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The Junk Science of George W. Bush

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As a Last Resort, Fire the Messenger

About the Author

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

Most federal employees have gone along with the Bush Administration's wishes, but a few have tried to stand up for sound science. The results are predictable. When a team of government biologists indicated that the Army Corps of Engineers was violating the Endangered Species Act in managing the flow of the Missouri River, the group was quickly replaced by an industry-friendly panel. (In an unexpected--and fortunate--development, the new panel ultimately declined to adopt the White House's pro-barge-industry position and upheld the decision to manage the river to protect imperiled species.) Similarly, last April the EPA suddenly dismantled an advisory panel that had spent nearly twenty-one months developing rules for stringent regulation of industrial emissions of mercury [see Alterman and Green, page 14].

Or consider the case of Tony Oppegard and Jack Spadaro, members of a team of federal geodesic engineers selected to investigate the collapse of barriers that held back a coal slurry pond in Kentucky containing toxic wastes from mountaintop strip-mining. The 300-million-gallon spill was the largest in American history and, according to the EPA, the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States. Black lava-like toxic sludge containing sixty poisonous chemicals choked and sterilized up to 100 miles of rivers and creeks and poisoned the drinking water in seventeen communities. Unlike in other slurry disasters, no one died, but hundreds of residents were sickened by contact with contaminated water.

The investigation had broad implications for the viability of mountaintop mining, which involves literally lopping off mountaintops to get access to the underlying coal. It is a process beloved by coal barons because it practically dispenses with the need for human labor and thus increases industry profits. Spadaro, the nation's leading expert on slurry spills, recalls, "We were geotechnical engineers determined to find the truth. We simply wanted to get to the heart of the matter--find out what happened and why, and to prevent it from happening again. But all that was thwarted at the top of the agency by Bush appointees who obstructed professionals trying to do their jobs."

The Bush Administration appointees all had coal industry pedigrees. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (the wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate's biggest recipient of industry largesse) appointed Dave Lauriski, a former executive with Energy West Mining, as the new director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversaw the investigation. His deputy assistant secretary was John Caylor, an Anamax Mining alumnus. His other deputy assistant, John Correll, had worked for both Amax and Peabody Coal.

Oppegard, the leader of the federal team, was fired on the day Bush was inaugurated in 2001. All eight members of the team except Spadaro signed off on a whitewashed investigation report. Spadaro, like the others, was harassed but flat-out refused to sign. In April of 2001 Spadaro resigned from the team and filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Labor Department. Last June 4 he was placed on administrative leave--a prelude to getting fired.

Bush Administration officials accuse Spadaro of "abusing his authority" for allowing a handicapped instructor to have free room and board at a training academy he oversees, an arrangement approved by his superiors. An internal report vindicated Spadaro's criticisms of the investigation, but the Administration is still going after his job. "I've been regulating mining since 1966," Spadaro told me. "This is the most lawless administration I've encountered. They have no regard for protecting miners or the people in mining communities. They are without scruples."

Science, like theology, reveals transcendent truths about a changing world. At their best, scientists are moral individuals whose business is to seek the truth. Over the past two decades industry and conservative think tanks have invested millions of dollars to corrupt science. They distort the truth about tobacco, pesticides, ozone depletion, dioxin, acid rain and global warming. In their attempt to undermine the credible basis for public action (by positing that all opinions are politically driven and therefore any one is as true as any other), they also undermine belief in the integrity of the scientific process.

Now Congress and this White House have used federal power for the same purpose. Led by the President, the Republicans have gutted scientific research budgets and politicized science within the federal agencies. The very leaders who so often condemn the trend toward moral relativism are fostering and encouraging the trend toward scientific relativism. The very ideologues who derided Bill Clinton as a liar have now institutionalized dishonesty and made it the reigning culture of America's federal agencies.

The Bush Administration has so violated and corrupted the institutional culture of government agencies charged with scientific research that it could take a generation for them to recover their integrity even if Bush is defeated this fall. Says Princeton University scientist Michael Oppenheimer, "If you believe in a rational universe, in enlightenment, in knowledge and in a search for the truth, this White House is an absolute disaster."

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