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    A Times Editorial

    Polluted science

    A study dominated by ideological critics of environmental regulations in the Clean Water Act reflects badly on the National Academy of Sciences.

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001


    The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 to advise government on the complex scientific issues of the day. Along with a related organization established in 1916 -- the National Research Council -- the academy has earned a solid reputation for its expertise and objectivity. So it is especially disappointing that a recent scientific study on an important part of the Clean Water Act appears to have been manipulated from the start.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ready to enforce new regulations that would have made states set "total maximum daily loads" (or TMDLs) on pollutants spilling into the nation's waterways. Then states would have had to regulate runoff from industrial sites, sewage plants and storm drainage to keep pollution below those levels. The polluters squawked, saying the new rules would cost them too much money.

    Two Republican senators, Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Mike Crapo of Idaho, were able to delay enforcement by calling for a study on the scientific basis for the TMDL regulations to be done by the academy. Normally, that process could take two years to put together a balanced committee and to study the issue thoroughly. Congress gave this committee only four months.

    The time limit turned off some eminent scientists, but not Kenneth Reckhow, a Duke University professor and former consultant to Florida's sugar industry, who volunteered for the task and became committee chair, Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported recently (see Was panel on water cleanup biased?, September 3, 2001). Also picked was Jan Mandrup-Poulsen, an official with the Florida DEP, an agency that had differed with the EPA over how to implement the TMDL regulations. The academy staff member who helped write the final report was Leonard Shabman, who not long before had written an article critical of one aspect of the clean water regulations.

    The committee's report had many suggestions, some critical of the EPA, and asked Congress and the EPA to "give thoughtful attention to the recommendations." EPA Secretary Christie Whitman did just that, citing the report as one of the reasons she would postpone implementation of the TMDL regulations until 2003.

    There is nothing wrong with Whitman's considering the report; in fact, it is expected. But it is also expected that the committee would bring objectivity to the process, and some behavior calls that into question.

    Since leading the committee, Reckhow has been hired as an expert witness for the Florida Pulp & Paper Association, whose members have been critical of the new regulations. And who recommended Reckhow to the association? Mandrup-Poulsen, who works for the state environmental agency that is supposedly regulating that polluting industry.

    The research council stands by its report, saying the committee was balanced and its research thorough. But Stephen Parker, director of the council's Water Science and Technology Board, admits he is concerned about the outcome. "We're disappointed if our report is being used in any way to delay implementation of the (TMDL) rule," Parker said.

    Yet that is what happened. Both the academy and the research council are in danger of being seen as pawns in a political game if there is a perception of a predetermined outcome or if a report is sought mainly to slow or stop regulation. The Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council are too important to public discourse on complex subjects to put their reputation at risk.

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