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August 27, 2007

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Integrity in Science Watch

Week of 08/27/2007

Ag Chief under Fire for Refusing to Study Flame Retardants

Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey faces possible jail time if the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service fails to produce an environmental analysis of the effects of using fish-killing chemicals as flame retardants on wildfires. The warning by U.S. District Court judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, MT comes in response to a 2003 lawsuit filed by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics that demanded the analysis. The judge earlier this month found that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act when it used more than 15 million gallons of the chemicals annually and dropped them repeatedly into streams containing endangered fish. These actions, according to agency biologists, should have prompted environmental analysis and consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service on their effects on protected species, but the Forest Service under Rey's direction decided against completing the analysis.

Meanwhile, Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) blamed "ecoterrorists" and the federal judge who stopped grazing to protect imperiled species for the Murphy Complex fire that burned over 600,000 acres in Idaho before being extinguished in early August. Craig joined Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) in condemning grazing regulations and endangered species protections for this year's intense fires in Idaho. Scientists and activists, including Jon Marvel, whose lawsuit as head of Western Watersheds Project halted grazing throughout much of Idaho's Jarbidge Resource Area, have countered that fires such as the Murphy Complex are intensified by highly flammable invasive weeds introduced by livestock.

Administration Feels Heat for Suppressing Climate Science

Another U.S. District Court judge, Saundra Armstrong of Oakland, CA, ruled on August 21 that the Bush administration broke the law in failing to present the latest scientific research about global warming to lawmakers and the public. The ruling comes in response to a 2006 lawsuit filed by three environmental organizations who charged that the Bush administration violated the Global Change Research Act of 1990 by refusing to produce the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the United States. The 1990 law requires that the U.S. Climate Change Science Program prepare the assessment every four years. The last assessment, completed by the Clinton Administration in October 2000, warned of severe climate change impacts to some regions of the United States.

Conflicts of Interest Cloud Health Care Cost Containment

Is it a conflict of interest when a drug company funds a program designed to hold down health care costs? The issue arose in Minnesota last week when the St. Paul Pioneer-Press revealed that Eli Lilly funded a Medicaid program for identifying physicians who over-prescribe antipsychotic medications. In exchange, the state kept Lilly's own anti-psychotic, Zyprexa, off the list of drugs for which physicians need government authorization before writing a prescription. According to the article, Wisconsin had a similar deal with Lilly until state's Medicaid agency placed all antipsychotic drugs, including Zyprexa, on the prior authorization list. Lilly then cancelled the program. A Minnesota state official defended the Lilly deal.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo warned health insurers Aetna Inc., UnitedHealth Group and Cigna Corp. that their proposed quality rankings for network physicians, designed to steer patients to doctors who follow best clinical practices, were based on inadequate data and therefore potentially deceptive. Letters to the insurers also accused them of a conflict of interest since the "profit motive may affect the accuracy of (their) quality and cost-effectiveness rankings." Physician groups have mounted legal challenges to similar programs in Connecticut and Washington, charging the quality rankings constituted libel and unfair trade practices. A Seattle-area settlement gave doctors input into the ranking system and an external appeal process.

Spotted Owl Recovery Plan Flunks Peer Review

Independent scientists asked to peer review the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's draft recovery plan for the threatened Northern Spotted Owl earlier this month blasted the plan for ignoring the best available science and misrepresenting research. The plan was produced under the oversight of a committee of Bush Administration political appointees including disgraced former fish and wildlife official Julie MacDonald, and released in April to a storm of criticism. Scientists from the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists' Union found that the plan will not allow the species to recover because it reduces protected habitat. The Society for Conservation Biology recommended that the Fish and Wildlife Service "scrap the draft recovery plan [and] convene a panel of independent scientists and ecologists to redo [it] based on the best available science."

The government agency also sought comments from scientists whose work was cited in the recovery plan. They, too, criticized the draft, noting that the plan's recommendations "were based on faulty assumptions and inappropriate use of published scientific data."

The scientists' criticism could sound a death knell for the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) proposed rewrite of the land management plans for 2.6 million acres of lands in Western Oregon. The Western Oregon Plan Revisions, which, according to the Sierra Club, would triple the amount of logging within BLM lands in the owl's habitat, is based on the owl plan's tenet that habitat protection is of less importance to the owl than previously thought. Public comments on the BLM's plan may be filed until November 9.

Odds and Ends

Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) on August 14 sent a letter to the White House seeking swift action to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Plans to reduce ship speeds to protect the whale have been held up by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for nearly a year. . . National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) director David Schwartz, under fire for testifying for law firms involved in asbestos litigation, has temporarily stepped down from the director’s post while the agency undergoes a comprehensive review of its ethics and financial management. . . More than half of the research partnerships entered into by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are with corporations or industry associations, according to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Cheers and Jeers

  • Cheer: to John P. Myers of Environmental Health Sciences for his letter to the Wall Street Journal challenging its editorial campaign promoting DDT use for malaria control. Pointing to support by public health advocates and environmentalists for the public health exception to the United Nations treaty banning DDT use and a new study in Environmental Health Perspectives showing a quintupling of breast cancer risk from early life exposure to DDT, Myers highlighted efforts to develop more benign alternatives for mosquito control. "If you would get off your pro-DDT hobbyhorse and work together with people who want to solve this problem, it might really happen," he wrote.
  • Cheer: to the Chico Enterprise-Record for printing a letter by reader Ron Sherman, who documents climate skeptic Richard Lindzen's ties to the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank funded by ExxonMobil.