Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Klamath whistleblower and political spin

Here is the top portion of former Bureau of Reclamation official Paul Houser's complaint regarding alleged biases in the way the Department of the Interior summarized and publicized the Klamath dam removal studies.
DATE: February 24, 2012

TO: Office of the Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Mail Stop 7328
Washington, DC 20240

FROM: Dr. Paul R. Houser
Science Advisor, Bureau of Reclamation, Washington D.C.
Scientific Integrity Officer, Bureau of Reclamation, Washington D.C.
1849 C Street NW
Washington DC 20240-0001
Professor, George Mason University
240 Research Hall, MSN: 6C3
4400 University Dr. Fairfax, VA 22030 [...]

SUBJECT: Allegation of scientific and scholarly misconduct and reprisal for a disclosure concerning the biased summarization of key scientific conclusions for the Klamath River dam removal Secretarial determination process.

SUMMARY: With this letter, I submit two allegations of scientific and scholarly misconduct and reprisal intended to compromise scientific integrity for a disclosure concerning the Department of the Interior’s biased (falsification) summarization of key scientific conclusions for the Klamath River dam removal Secretarial determination process. These allegations violate different parts of the 305 DM 3 Scientific Integrity Policy, but are being submitted together, as their possible motivation and topics are related. In my role as Science Advisor and Scientific Integrity Officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, I provide my comments at various points during this presentation.
1. Intentional Falsification: Motivated by Secretary Salazar’s publically stated 2009 intention to issue a Secretarial determination in favor of removing four dams on the Klamath River (due on March 31, 2012), the Department of the Interior has followed a course of action to construct support for such an outcome. An example of this intentional biased (falsification) reporting of scientific results is
contained in the September 21, 2011 “Summary of Key Conclusions: Draft EIS/EIR and Related Scientific/Technical Reports” [attachment 1]. Other examples provided by third parties are provided in the attached documents.

a. Person(s) alleged to have committed misconduct:

i. Unreported author(s) of report “Summary of Key Conclusions: Draft EIS/EIR and
Related Scientific/Technical Reports”
ii. Department of the Interior officials

2) Intentionally circumventing policy that ensures the integrity of science and scholarship, and actions that compromise scientific and scholarly integrity: On September 15, 2011, I expressed concern via written disclosure relating to the scientific integrity of a draft press release on the draft environmental analysis for removing four Klamath River dams [attachments 2, 3], and via verbal disclosure about the integrity of the larger Klamath River dam removal Secretarial determination process. My disclosure was clearly made to people who had authority to fix the press release (Department Press Secretary, Department Solicitor’s Office), and people who had influence on the Secretarial decision process (Department Solicitor’s Office, Reclamation Deputy Commissioner). My disclosure was never directly addressed, and supervisors have used my probationary status to
enact reprisal for the disclosure culminating in the termination of my employment (effective February 24, 2011).

Even though some changes were in the final press release (showing I had made the disclosure to people with the authority to change the press release), the subsequent reprisal indicates that these same people questioned my commitment to Secretarial intentions to support the Klamath River dam removal. This Secretarial decision (due March 31, 2012) is reported to have a cost to the public (taxpayers and ratepayers) in excess of $1B, so a poor decision would result in gross waste
of funds.

Following my disclosure, I faced systematic reprisal that enacted a 1-year probationary period to issue threats of termination, gave a low performance rating, denied travel, denied training and executive development, denied mentoring, and terminated my position. This period of reprisal demonstrates a pattern of hindering and not being supportive or honest about the scientific integrity process; the subsequent reprisal shows intentional actions that directly compromise 305 DM 3, and
therefore constitutes a violation of rules and regulations. Finally, the expectation for employees to compromise scientific integrity in support of Departmental mission and goals, and to engage in systematic reprisal when an employee question’s the Department’s scientific integrity is clearly an abuse of authority.

a. Person(s) alleged to have committed misconduct:
i. Mr. Adam [Fetcher], Department of the Interior, Press Secretary
ii. Ms. Kira Finkler, Deputy Commissioner for External and Intergovernmental Affairs,
Bureau of Reclamation
By submitting these allegations, I request that the Department of the Interior Scientific Integrity Officer
conduct a review of the allegations and submitted materials to determine whether an inquiry is warranted.
This letter has been seized upon by dam removal critics as proof that the entire process has been rigged. I received it in an e-mail from Tom Mallams, a Klamath Basin farmer who's led a vocal opposition to the project.

We have not spoken yet to Mr. Houser, but it appears by reading his letter that, as the Karuk Tribe's Craig Tucker told the Searchlight, he's taking issue more with how the studies were presented for public consumption rather than the body of scientific work itself. Our take is that unless he or someone can point to specific instances when scientific studies were manipulated for an end result, there's really not much "there" there. Eye-catching headlines aside, the fact that a cabinet secretary's press office would spin a study for a political outcome may be something for members of Congress to keep in mind when considering funding, but it's hardly earth-shattering or unprecedented.

Further, it's not like scientists' misgivings about the project haven't been out there. As I reported back in July:
Six experts on chinook salmon hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assert the dam removals and restoration efforts planned for the river basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California would be "a major step forward."

However, the panel warned the degree of success would depend on how well numerous factors are addressed, including water quality, fish disease, the straying of hatchery salmon to wild spawning grounds and predation by redband trout and other fish.

The panel advises close scientific monitoring of the rehabilitation efforts, adding the program "will need to be funded adequately."

"(T)he uncertainties act to hinder success, although it is possible that uncertainty in some cases can also result in a larger response than planned or expected," the scientists stated in a summary of their report.

In a separate study, a half-dozen federal researchers acknowledged that "some uncertainty is inherent" in projections into the future, but added its findings "are based on reasonable projections of possible future management."
At the time, these warnings were a hit with Mallams and other critics. From my story:
Mallams seized on statements by San Francisco State University environmental researcher Wim Kimmerer, one of the six experts who reviewed the plan, that it doesn't solve the basin's water problems.

Kimmerer told the Los Angeles Times that for vegetation and stream banks to adequately absorb the phosphorus that promotes harmful algal blooms, an area equivalent to 40 percent of the irrigated farmland in the Upper Klamath Lake watershed would have to be converted to wetlands.

"That's about 200,000 acres they'd have to take out, and that doesn't work," Mallams said. "These guys are saying it's going to save agriculture. If you're going to take out 200,000 acres of irrigated land, there's nothing left here to survive."
Unfortunately, part of the blame for an administration's proclivity for spinning summaries of lengthy reports has to rest on members of Congress, who've proven their willingness to pass landmark legislation without even reading it. If that ever changed, maybe the Adam Fetchers of the world would stop bothering to try to put government reports in a politically favorable light. And while we're at it, maybe I'll be the next editor of Time magazine.

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