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The Junk Science of
George W. Bush
By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., The Nation,
February 26, 2004
As Jesuit schoolboys studying world
history we learned that Copernicus and Galileo self-censored for many decades their proofs
that the earth revolved around the sun and that a less restrained heliocentrist, Giordano
Bruno, was burned alive in 1600 for the crime of sound science. With the encouragement of
our professor, Father Joyce, we marveled at the capacity of human leaders to corrupt noble
institutions. Lust for power had caused the Catholic hierarchy to subvert the church's
most central purpose the search for existential truths.
Today, flat-earthers within the Bush Administration aided by right-wing allies who
have produced assorted hired guns and conservative think tanks to further their goals
are engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the
Western world since the Inquisition. Sometimes, rather than suppress good science, they
simply order up their own. Meanwhile, the Bush White House is purging, censoring, and
blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens the profits of the
Administration's corporate paymasters or challenges the ideological underpinnings of their
radical anti-environmental agenda. Indeed, so extreme is this campaign that more than
sixty scientists, including Nobel laureates and medical experts, released a statement on
February 18 that accuses the Bush Administration of deliberately distorting scientific
fact "for partisan political ends."
I've had my own experiences with Torquemada's modern successors, both personal and related
to my work as an environmental lawyer and advocate working for the Natural Resources
Defense Council and the Waterkeeper Alliance.
At the time of the World Trade Center catastrophe on September 11, 2001, I had just opened
an office at 115 Broadway, cater-corner from the World Trade Center and within the
official security zone to which access was, afterward, restricted for several months. Upon
returning to the office in October my partner, Kevin Madonna, suffered a burning throat,
nausea and a headache that was still pounding twenty-four hours after he left the
building. Despite the Environmental Protection Agency's claims that air quality was safe,
Kevin refused to return and we closed the office. Many workers did not have that option;
their employers relied on the EPA's nine press releases between September and December of
2001 reassuring the public about the wholesome air quality downtown. We have since learned
that the government was lying to us. An Inspector General's report released last August
revealed that the EPA's data did not support those assurances and that its press releases
were being drafted or doctored by White House officials intent on reopening Wall Street.
On September 13, just two days after the terror attack, the EPA announced that asbestos
dust in the area was "very low" or entirely absent. On September 18 the agency
said the air was "safe to breathe." In fact, more than 25 percent of the samples
collected by the EPA before September 18 showed presence of asbestos above the 1 percent
safety benchmark. Among outside studies, one performed by scientists at the University of
California, Davis, found particulates at levels never before seen in more than 7,000
similar tests worldwide. A study being performed by Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has found
that 78 percent of rescue workers suffered lung ailments and 88 percent had ear, nose and
throat problems in the months following the attack and that about half still had
persistent lung and respiratory illnesses nine months to a year later.
Dan Tishman, whose company was involved in the reconstruction at 140 West Street, required
his crews to wear respirators but recalls seeing many rescue and construction workers
laboring unprotected no doubt relying on the government's assurances. "The
frustrating thing is that everyone just counts on the EPA to be the watchdog of public
health," he says. "When that role is compromised, people can get hurt."
I also recall the case of Dr. James Zahn, a nationally respected microbiologist with the
Agriculture Department's research service, who accepted my invitation to speak to an April
2002 conference of more than 1,000 family farm advocates and environmental and civic
leaders in Clear Lake, Iowa. In a rigorous taxpayer-funded study, Zahn had identified
bacteria that can make people sick and that are resistant to antibiotics in
the air surrounding industrial-style hog farms. His studies proved that billions of these
"superbugs" were traveling across property lines daily, endangering the health
of neighbors and their herds. I was shocked when Zahn canceled his appearance on the day
of the conference under orders from the Agriculture Department in Washington. I later
uncovered a fax trail proving the order was prompted by lobbyists from the National Pork
Producers Council. Zahn told me that his supervisor at the , under pressure from the
hog industry, had ordered him not to publish his study and that he had been forced to
cancel more than a dozen public appearances at local planning boards and county health
commissions seeking information about health impacts of industry mega-farms. Soon after my
conference, Zahn resigned from the government in disgust.
Ignoring Bad News
The Bush Administration's first instinct when it comes to science has been to
suppress, discredit or alter facts it doesn't like. Probably the best-known case is global
warming. Over the past two years the Administration has done this to a dozen major
government studies on global warming, as well as to a report by the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, in its own efforts to stall action to control industrial
emissions. The list also includes major long-term studies by the federal government's
National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences, and by scientific teams at the
EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, and a 2002
collaborative report by scientists at all three of those agencies.
The Administration has taken special pains to shield Vice President Dick Cheney's old
company, Halliburton, which is part of an industry that has contributed $58 million to
Republicans since 2000. Halliburton is the leading practitioner of a process used in
extracting oil and gas known as hydraulic fracturing, in which benzene is injected into
underground formations. EPA scientists studying the process in 2002 found that it could
contaminate ground-water supplies in excess of federal drinking water standards. A week
after reporting their findings to Congressional staff members, however, they revised the
data to indicate that benzene levels would not exceed government standards. In a letter to
Representative Henry Waxman, EPA officials said the change was made based on
As a favor to utility and coal industries, America's largest mercury dischargers, the EPA
sat for nine months on a report exposing the catastrophic impact on children's health of
mercury, finally releasing it in February 2003. Among the findings of the report: The
bloodstream of one in twelve US women is saturated with enough mercury to cause
neurological damage, permanent IQ loss and a grim inventory of other diseases in their
The list goes on. In October 2001 Interior Secretary Gale Norton, responding to a Senate
committee inquiry on the effects of oil drilling on caribou in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, falsely claimed that the caribou would not be affected, because they
calve outside the area targeted for drilling. She later explained that she somehow
substituted "outside" for "inside." She also substituted findings from
a study financed by an oil company for some of the ones that the Fish and Wildlife Service
had prepared for her. In another case, according to the Wall Street Journal, Norton and
White House political adviser Karl Rove pressed for changes that would allow diversion of
substantial amounts of water from the Klamath River to benefit local supporters and
agribusiness contributors. Some 34,000 endangered salmon were killed after National Marine
Fisheries scientists altered their findings on the amount of water the salmon required.
Environmentalists describe it as the largest fish kill in the history of the West. Mike
Kelly, the fisheries biologist on the Klamath who drafted the biological opinion, told me
that under the current plan coho salmon are probably headed for extinction. According to
Kelly, "The morale is very low among scientists here. We are under pressure to get
the right results. This Administration is putting the species at risk for political gain.
And not just in the Klamath."
Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, told me that the alteration
and deletion of scientific information is now standard procedure at Interior. "It's
hard to decide what is more demoralizing about the Administration's politicization of the
scientific process," he said, "its disdain for professional scientists working
for our government or its willingness to deceive the American public."
Getting the Right Answer
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
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.
As a Last Resort, Fire the Messenger
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.
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
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and
president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, is working on a book about President Bush's
environmental policies, Crimes Against Nature, to be published this spring by
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