Pseudoscience: A Threat to Our Environment

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By Roberta C. Barbalace


Scientific data related to coal mining ignored

Senior government officials at the Department of the Interior disregarded extensive research conducted by five separate state and federal agencies over a four-year period reported in an environmental impact statement (EIS) on mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. According to Jim Hecker of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ), the Army Corps of Engineers continues to authorize coal mining activities in several states, ignoring prior litigation and the devastating scientific data presented by the federal agencies in the draft environmental impact statement on mountaintop removal mining. Despite the fact that agencies agreed that the EIS should recommend policies and procedures to minimize adverse environmental effects, J. Stephen Griles Secretary of the Department of the Interior (and former lobbyist for the National Mining Association) instructed the agency scientists and staff to alter the focus of the EIS and focus on centralizing and streamlining coal-mining permitting and drop any options for more environmentally benign alternatives to current practices (24,27).

Coal fired power plants and mercury pollution

There appears to be overwhelming evidence that the level of mercury pollution in the environment presents a health risk to infants, children and the unborn (4, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 22, 25, 30). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that more than half of all freshwater fish from American lakes had mercury levels that may be unhealthy for children under the age of 3. The EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that pregnant and nursing mothers and children under three should limit servings of white albacore tuna to one serving a week. Forty-four states have warned residents to limit how much fresh water fish they consume (11). According to Carol Browner, the head of the EPA during the Clinton administration, "the greatest source of mercury emissions is power plants, and they have never been required to control these emissions before (11,30).

In December of 2000 the Clinton Administration announced that it would require coal-fired power plants to cut their toxic emissions of mercury. Unfortunately, the proposed regulations were to be written by George W. Bush (11). Bush officials suppressed and sought to manipulate information contained in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on children's health as it was related to the environment. In May 2003 the White House Office of Management and Budget and The Office of Science and Technology Policy began the review of the document. In February an EPA official leaked the draft to the Wall Street Journal. Shortly after the leak, the EPA Report was finally released. Had the EPA official not leaked the report, it likely would not have been released until desired revisions had been made. The new rules proposed by the EPA actually had twelve or more paragraphs, sometimes in their entirety inserted in their entirety from a document prepared by coal industry lawyers. According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, political appointees at the EPA completely bypassed the EPA scientists, staff and a federal advisory panel in writing the proposed rules. Director of EPA Air Enforcement Division, Bruce C. Buckheit, who retired in 2003 said that his division was not even permitted to read the proposed rules until after they were released (26).

There are countless reports on scientific studies indicating that the lowering the emission from coal-fired power plants would reduce the mercury in the atmosphere and subsequently the mercury in fish (8, 30). However, reports from industry backed organizations such as coal industry's The Greening Earth Society suggest that environmental mercury accounts for the lion's share of the airborne mercury, and as a result it is not possible to lower the amount of mercury substantially by reducing power plant emissions (5, 10, 11). Interestingly enough, Thomas D. Atkeson, Mercury Coordinator for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, reported that mercury pollution dropped by 90% in South Florida since medical waste incinerators were fitted with new controls (there are no coal fired power plants there). Mercury levels in large mouth bass and wading birds declined 80% during the same time(8). This contradicts the predictions made by the Greening Earth Society (10).

21st Century Lysenkoism?

Some of the most qualified scientists in the world have spoken on issues that affect America and the entire world, but nobody in Bush's administration seems to be listening, or if they are listening, they have chosen to ignore their recommendations in favor of recommendations of industry and special interest groups (13, 15, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30). It is a sad reminder of the Stalin years in the Soviet Union. The suppression and distortion of science could have serious consequences for the future of American Research (20) just as it did on scientific research in the Soviet Union. The longer scientific censure is allowed to control public policy and governmental research, the greater the potential of scientists leaving the federal agencies for positions elsewhere that permit them to conduct research in an unbiased atmosphere. They would likely be replaced by less qualified scientists, or those who would be willing to compromise the principles of the scientific method in order to comply with the desired results of the administration. Doctor Margaret Scarlett, who worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for 15 years stated, "The current administration has instituted an unheard of level of micromanagement into the programmatic and scientific activities of CDC. We are seeing a clear substitution of ideology for science, and it is causing many committed scientists to leave the agency (33)."

Virtually every scientific agency in the U.S. government has been shaken at its foundation by the substitution of pseudoscience for scientific investigation. If our government is to make sound public policy, true scientific investigation must be allowed and encouraged to flourish untainted by political agendas, industry pressure and the pseudoscience these pressures breed. The U.S. Congress and President must stop sacrificing sound science for shortsighted political agendas and must stop substituting true scientific research with pseudoscience.

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