889 EPA scientists report political interference

WASHINGTON -- More than half of the scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency who responded to a survey said they have experienced political interference in their work.

The results show "an agency under siege from political pressures," said the Union of Concerned Scientists' report, which was publicly released yesterday and sent to EPA Administrator Steve Johnson.


The online questionnaire was sent to 5,419 EPA scientists last summer; 1,586 replied, and of those, 889 said they had experienced at least one type of interference within the past five years.

Such allegations are not new: During much of the Bush administration, there have been reports of the White House watering down documents regarding climate change, industry language inserted into EPA power plant regulations and scientific advisory panels' conclusions about toxic chemicals going unheeded.


But Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program for the Washington-based nonprofit group, said the survey documents the widespread nature of the problem at the EPA. "What we've been up against until now is anecdotal evidence," Grifo said.

She acknowledged that scientists who are frustrated and upset might have been more likely than those who are satisfied to respond to her organization's survey, but she added: "Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. That's 900 too many."

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar noted that administrator Johnson was previously a 27-year career scientist. "We have the best and finest scientific community in the world at EPA," Shradar said. "All of the issues we deal with are issues that we all are very passionate about. It's important that we let the scientists do the science and allow policy-makers to do the policy work."

The survey respondents were split over the impact of politics on regulations. According to the report, 48 percent believed that the EPA's actions are "frequently or always" consistent with scientific findings; 47 percent believed that agency policy "occasionally, seldom or never" made use of its scientific judgments.

In optional essays, scientists repeatedly singled out the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, accusing officials there of inserting themselves into decision-making at early stages in a way that shaped the outcome of their inquiries. They also alleged that the OMB delayed rules not to its liking. EPA actions "are held hostage" until changes are made, one scientist from the agency's Office of Air and Radiation wrote.

Some also accused members of Congress of inappropriate interventions.

J. William Hirzy, an EPA senior scientist and union official, said politics trumped science at times during the Clinton administration as well, but "what we're seeing now is ... the favoring of energy interests, coal-fired power plants. That's something different in this administration."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, wrote to Johnson yesterday to ask him to be prepared to respond to the findings at a hearing next month of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.


Judy Pasternak writes for the Los Angeles Times.