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by GAP Legal Director Tom Devine and GAP Investigator Tarek Maassarani.
Climate change scientists have earned Washington D.C.’s highest compliment—being treated like political threats to those abusing government power. That makes them whistleblowers, however involuntary, and a bureaucratic endangered species. That also triggered the two related responses to any serious dissent—shift the spotlight from the message to the messenger by smearing the latter, and engage in strategic retreats through rhetorical reforms with as little substance as possible. These cynical tactics have polluted the increasingly heated debate on global warming the last few months. The good news is that these early attacks often are the first signs of necessary changes to come.
This time, the spark occurred when Dr. James Hansen, the government’s top climate change scientist, just said no to censorship. A 34-year career civil servant, he leads climatology research at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Last December he publicly warned that 2005 was the hottest on record for the last 120,000 years and spelled out the dire consequences for society if we continue business as usual another 10 years.
Hansen warned that without a social overhaul to flatten carbon emissions, earth will reach a tipping point beyond which it is too late to stop glaciers from melting, with temperatures over the next century increasing four to five degrees Fahrenheit. The last time Earth was that hot, some 3 million years ago, sea levels were 80 feet higher than today. Florida was largely underwater, and coastlines were up to 50 miles inland, exiling most of today’s concentrated populations. Katrina disasters would become the rule rather than the exception, with cities continually rebuilding above a transient water line.
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by Louis Clark, GAP President. This editorial also appeared in: Topeka Capital-Journal and Garden City Telegram (KS).
The earth is on a collision course with environmental catastrophe. Scientific studies show that we are fast approaching a point of no return – a tipping point. Greenland is melting. Polar bears are disappearing. The sea level is rising. The earth is becoming hotter. Storms are intensifying. All of these changes are the results of a scientifically accepted consensus – that of the human impact on climate change. Unless humanity takes dramatic steps now to correct this trend, the world as we know it will no longer exist.
Nobody understands this more than Dr. James Hansen. He is the top climate scientist at NASA, if not in the entire federal government. Hansen has spoken out about the problem of global warming since the Reagan administration and has been critical of every administration since. Although he is a brilliant scientist of towering international reputation, there is now an orchestrated attempt by political officials at NASA to shut him up. He refuses to be silenced.
His particular troubles began after he gave a speech stating "In my more than three decades in the government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it is now."
The problem has become more ominous, not less, since then.
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by Louis Clark, GAP President
Eight years ago, a handful of pipefitters raised a critical safety problem. Their bosses at the Hanford nuclear weapons facility ordered them to install and then test inadequate valves in pipes intended to carry high-level radioactive waste. The pipefitters cited worker and public health concerns when refusing to obey orders, but were again told to comply -- with an added threat of termination if they did not do so. They stood their ground and lost their jobs, setting off an eight-year battle for vindication.
That exoneration occurred on September 2, 2005. A unanimous Washington state jury submitted its findings after an extraordinary, unprecedented six-week trial. It awarded eleven workers nearly $5 million in back pay and damages. The Department of Energy (DOE) contractor Fluor Federal Services, which had unceremoniously dumped the workers, was stunned. It had spent more than an estimated $3 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars in corporate legal fees to keep the case from reaching the courthouse.
Those who attended the trial were not surprised by the verdict. While a dozen corporate lawyers challenged and objected as the evidence of illegal reprisal and open hostility toward whistleblowers mounted, one lone attorney for the workers demolished the defenses of the contractor, along with the credibility of its bosses and other witnesses. By the end of the trial, the verdict seemed to be almost a foregone conclusion, although the level of damages awarded was a pleasant surprise to the workers and their public interest supporters.
There were other less dramatic victories along the way toward the ultimate jury decision. Years earlier, DOE had agreed that the workers were right not to install the inadequate, dangerous valves. It had even ordered its government contractor to reinstate the workers, which the company did temporarily until it manufactured another excuse to fire them.
The workers had even offered to mediate their differences through a special council for whistleblower concerns. Fluor opted for scorched-earth legal warfare. DOE backed up its contractor with a blank check on legal costs. In doing so, the department had not counted on growing unease in Congress as members saw the price tag mushroom.
Seven weeks before the jury delivered the pipefitters’ absolution, Congress stripped the DOE of much of its authority to pay the legal bills of its contractors against whistleblower lawsuits. The experiences and story of these whistleblowers played a pivotal role in prompting congressional action.
The pipefitters’ refusal to be responsible for possible injury or death to other workers, as well as their fierce determination to have their day in court, has changed the legal rules for whistleblowers nationwide. No longer can major contractors rely on the bottomless pit of the federal treasury to fund their vindictiveness.
As for the federal government -- this is the time to stand up for the workers who refuse to remain silent in the face of public safety, instead of greasing the palms of corporate lawyers. In fact, companies that put production quotas above human life require punishment, not financial reward and unlimited legal fees.
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by Louis Clark, GAP President. This editorial also appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Star-Democrat (MD), and Brinkley Argus (AR).
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Philip Cooney, chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, repeatedly edited scientific reports to downplay human impact on climate change. In his role, Cooney edited hundreds of pages in multiple reports to advance Bush administration views, effectively making the science fit the policy. In one example, Cooney deleted an entire paragraph discussing the projected reduction of mountain glaciers, noting in the margins that the language was "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings."
Why would an educated man in an enlightened society edit a scientific report in such a policy-driven way? One reason may be that Cooney is a lawyer with no scientific background. Even more egregious, Cooney was employed previously as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, the preeminent oil industry interest group in Washington, D.C. After the scandal was uncovered, Cooney resigned his post, only to be hired by ExxonMobil three days later.
Cooney and the administration display a unique arrogance in this matter. As a free society, we cannot allow attempts to skew, censor or falsify scientific evidence for personal or political agendas. This constitutes scientific fraud. If the executive branch has such a strong aversion to the concept that SUV emissions and burning fossil fuels cause global warming, then they should fund scientific studies to investigate further. Crossing out paragraphs and rewording phrases in secrecy for corporate gain is wrong and appalling. An oil lobbyist who serves his former master should never be given the power to exercise prior restraint when dealing with science.
Fortunately, the administration was outed in this incident. But the scandal suggests a deeper sickness in certain quarters of this government in the approach to science. A disagreement over economic or ethical implications of scientific results certainly has its place, but scientific findings must be shielded, impervious to opinion, political persuasion or ideology.
Cooney’s arrogance has infuriated numerous government officials, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Both have written to ExxonMobil, shaming it for hiring a man who so brashly betrayed the public trust. Some lawmakers have gone a step further, introducing a bill that would make the politicization of scientific research illegal. This law would effectively grant whistleblower protection for federal scientists who refuse to rewrite their studies for improper reasons, along with making it illegal for agency officials to force scientists to rewrite findings.
Galileo proclaimed to the world that the earth revolved around the sun, and the ethical objections and criticisms he faced made it no less true. In suppressing Galileo’s views, his government deterred the progress of all humanity. Let us keep the lessons of the past in mind as we encounter those who lie about, mold and craft scientific findings. We can be assured that history will not look kindly upon Cooney. His actions were wildly undemocratic and against society’s better interests. We need science to tell us the truth about our world as it finds it. We need those answers unfiltered and uncensored.
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by Tom Carpenter, GAP Nuclear Oversight Program Director
The Government Accountability Project recently released a report detailing new evidence of contamination in the area around the Hanford nuclear site. New findings included that Columbia River fish and clam samples are contaminated with plutonium, mulberry trees are higher in toxicity than previously thought and radioactive attic dust in the Richland area suggests widespread exposure.
Plutonium content is one of the most troubling findings. The government does not report finding plutonium in fish or clams because, unbelievably, they don’t bother to check. Even more troubling, many individuals, specifically those of the Native American tribes around the Hanford region, are eating these fish, unaware of the potential hazards.
If it seems to you that someone should have been monitoring these contaminants since the get-go and warn unknowing citizens about dangers, you’re right. The Department of Energy and its organizational predecessors have overseen Hanford operations since its inception as a secret plutonium processing plant. Over the years, however, DOE has consistently shown it’s not interested in protecting public health for the people of Washington and Oregon as much as they are in protecting themselves from embarrassing disclosures.
To illustrate this point, just look at DOE behavior over the past five years. An act of Congress was needed to provide health care and financial compensation to workers made ill by radioactive and chemical material exposure, as DOE fights nearly every claim for such illnesses. That’s despite overwhelming medical evidence showing links to cancer. DOE has consistently reneged on its cleanup commitments at Hanford, shrinking the scope of the cleanup program as it announces that it intends to bury tens of thousands of truckloads of waste from other states. Washington state has even been compelled to file lawsuits aimed at forcing DOE to keep the cleanup on schedule.
In keeping with this spirit of offensive behavior, DOE changed its reaction to our report several times over the course of 24 hours. Initially, representatives responded favorably to GAP’s findings, stating they encouraged outside groups to produce independent samplings. This quickly shifted, rather dramatically, to criticizing the report for not being peer-reviewed (an incorrect assertion, as a former Hanford scientist did this). DOE even implied that the plutonium levels in the fish were at acceptable levels. Lastly, DOE attacked GAP as being an anti-nuclear group with a political agenda, pulling the old trick of attacking the messenger.
If being an "anti-nuclear group" means to be concerned about contamination in communities and the food chain, especially when people are not being informed about hazards, so be it. However, our agenda is public safety and accountability. And the people of the Northwest will never receive either one if DOE is in charge of reviewing itself.
There needs to be a credible assessment of just how contaminated the Columbia River has become from Hanford’s past and present emissions, as well as an inventory of the ecological damage, by an independent reviewer. The annual "Hanford State of the Site" meeting produced more than enough examples of individuals whose valid claims seems to be a shock to the Hanford brass, despite these issues coming up year after year.
The people of Washington and Oregon unknowingly sacrificed for their country when the Hanford plant was built, and they continue to suffer today. It is insulting for DOE not to take proactive steps to protect our citizens, much less have to be forced into action. Our congressional representatives should ensure an independent investigation and assessment, providing citizens, tribal members and state agencies with the information they need to protect themselves.