The ongoing science controversy surrounding Drake’s Estero raises a critical question. If the Department of Interior cannot assure scientific integrity in a case representing a tiny oyster farm in a National Park, how can they ensure integrity in the management of the Nation’s resources where billions of dollars are involved in leases to the oil, gas and other extractive industries that benefit from access to public lands? Senator Feinstein’s blistering March 29 letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar borders on accusing the National Park Service of “potentially fraudulent” deception by distorting science. The Senator notes that this latest episode is one of a large number of similar events that have stretched back to the beginnings of her involvement in the controversy, when Marin supervisors, in a May 8, 2007 meeting, unanimously asked her to intervene with the Park Service regarding the NPS science at Drakes Estero and the fate of the oyster farm
The latest incident repeats a pattern of Park Service misconduct. The pattern starts when the Park Service identifies an issue and then, without even contacting Drakes Bay Oyster Company and the Lunny’s, releases it, complete with misleading and unverified claims where it is distributed nationally in an echo chamber of environmental disinformation. When, as has happened every time in the past, the allegations fall apart, NPS conjures up another supposed issue, never correcting their first false allegations and never attempting to remediate the supposed problem while trying to restrict any future studies so as to not involve the previous allegations. This pattern continues despite studies by the Department of the Interior (DOI) Inspector General, the National Academy of Sciences, the Marine Mammal Commission and the DOI solicitor’s office. These studies have raised the issue of known falsehoods, concealing information and serious misrepresentation of science, dating back to the first investigation with DOI IG’s findings that NPS scientist deliberately misrepresented data from another federal agency (to imply that Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) was causing environmental damage.
The pattern is clear in the latest allegations that the sound from DBOC is causing harm to harbor seals and the soundscape of Drake’s Estero. According to Lunny, no one from NPS had contacted him on this issue prior to being contacted by NPS’ Natalie Gates in the course of her management of the current and controversial draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). She did not indicate if NPS had made any prior attempts to measure the actual sound levels in the Estero. He did note that shortly after he took over the farm in 2005, NPS scientists had thanked him for switching to quieter 4 stroke outboards for the oyster boats, which also eliminated the pollution that the older two-stroke motors caused. Gates arranged a working day visit with Vanesse Hangen Brustlin (VHB), the DEIS contractor, to evaluate the soundscape. On Feb. 16, 2011, Lunny provided a tour of the farm and a boat trip out on the estero. However, in the draft report, VHB, despite identifying the actual equipment in use and the make and horsepower of the outboards, used 16 year old data on Jet Ski’s and a federal report on construction equipment of what they claimed was similar equipment.
NPS Directors Order 47 issued in 2000, which is cited in the DEIS, requires NPS to have measured the soundscape of Drakes Estero, however no such NPS data was made available to the Lunnys. Incredibly, especially considering the apparent NPS failure to baseline the data, the EIS contractor, supposed experts in soundscapes, failed take along a digital sound meter to make an approximate determine if the existing sound levels appeared to violate standards. (National Institute of Standards and technology (NIST) approved decibel meters are available for less than $300, with adequately accurate units for less than $50.) Subsequent tests by Dr. Steffel of ENVIRON, hired by the Lunnys at their expense, showed that the contractor had used sound over 25 to 825 times greater than the actual sound levels. It defies credulity that the VHB ‘expert’, who had actually visited DBOC and seen and heard the boats and equipment, could make this kind of error. Instead, they and NPS used incorrect data from 3000 miles away and a federal highway construction document.
The pattern exactly fits the pattern of the similar incident in 2007 wherein NPS issued a report claiming among other things, that the oyster company was the major source of sediment in Drakes Estero, deliberately misquoting the findings of a USGS scientist, and implying that the negative data that came from Japan, 50 years and 5000 miles away, actually came from Drakes Estero. This was recorded in the DOI Inspector General’s Oct. 2008 Semi Annual Report to Congress, which on p31 highlighted its section on NPS with the headline, “NPS Scientist misrepresents research.”
In Sept. 2008, on the eve of the first National Academy of Science panel meeting, whose review of NPS science was requested by Sen. Feinstein, NPS Western Regional Director Jon Jarvis changed the agenda, removing himself as the introductory presenter, and substituted NPS scientist Ben Becker, who presented an entirely new paper, claiming disturbance of harbor seals by oyster operations. This new science was introduced despite written correspondence between then Park Chief Mary Bomar and Senator Feinstein that the NAS review would cover only existing NPS science. The Becker paper appeared designed to deflect attention from Park Superintendent Neubacher’s false claim of massive loss of seal pups at the 2007 Marin County Board of Supervisors meetings, but became controversial as major errors were revealed, including a 100% overstatement of the level of oyster harvest, which the paper correlated with seal disturbance. In a leaked draft copy of the NAS report, they characterized the paper as “so biased as to be meaningless”.
When the NAS report did not support NPS science and found that impacts from the oyster operations did not compromise the ecology of the estero, two environmental groups, supported by NPS, requested that the Marine Mammal Commission investigate. On the eve of the Feb. 2010 investigation, still another new NPS paper emerged, which claimed impacts on the seal population in the entire area. After lengthy review, the MMC found that the (NPS) paper failed to establish any causality, (the report said that, even at that level, the NPS data was “scant, and being stretched to its limit”). The expert panel, in their individual statements in Appendix F, was in almost complete agreement with the findings of the NAS report, finding no incompatibility between the harbor seals and oyster operations.
Coming back to the soundscape and the Environmental Impact Statement, Congress House/Senate Interior Appropriations Conference Committee, a bipartisan group, included the following language in their Dec16, 2011 Conference Report: “The conferees are aware that the [National Park] Service will shortly be issuing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) regarding a possible 10-year extension for oyster operations at Point Reyes National Seashore. Because of concerns relating to the validity of the science underlying the DEIS, the conferees direct the National Academy of Sciences to assess the data, analysis, and conclusions in the DEIS in order to ensure there is a solid scientific foundation for the Final Environmental Impact Statement expected in mid-2012.” Notwithstanding, in a move that mirrors NPS head Jon Jarvis (then Western Region head) disobedience in unilaterally changing the scope of Feinstein’s initial NAS request for study, NPS commissioned Atkins PLC for a ‘preemptive’ peer review.
The Atkins peer reviewers, including sound expert Dr. Christopher Clarkson, were clearly mislead by NPS into believing that the sound data represented Drake’s Estero boats and equipment. In communications with Dr. Corey Goodman, who had provided him with the actual ENVIRON data, Clarkson said in a Mar 21 phone call to Goodman that he was deceived and in a later e-mail, stated “I do not believe that these activities have a biologically significant impact on wildlife…” NPS apparently also deceived DOI’s scientific integrity officer, Dr. Ralph Morgenweck who in a DOI press release said, “The peer review accomplished exactly what we were seeking, that is specific recommendations on how to improve the final impact statement to make it a better science project.”
The purpose of peer review is to improve the quality of research papers, not to prevent lying. Peer review assumes honesty on the part of the researcher. It is not a forensic analysis of the sources of the data, (badly needed in the case of NPS) but a check on the validity of the arguments based on the data. What little fraud is found is usually discovered when other scientists try to use the work or replicate results. It is true that in science, there have been a few isolated rotten apples, but in the case of DOI’s handling of NPS supposed science, it is the rotten barrel that is spoiling the apples.