04-11-12 Greenwire “Battle escalates over allegations of NPS misconduct

‘Good enough for government work’
To PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, the debate over the noise data is irrelevant. Even if NPS made mistakes in presenting the data — by not clearly marking the sound levels as estimates — it falls short of scientific misconduct, he said.

The Park Service has limited funds and limited time. The draft EIS is “good enough for government work,” he said.

“It’s a minor mistake. It doesn’t invalidate the larger product,” he said. “This is a game of academic gotcha that misses the broader point.”
Greenwire
3. INTERIOR:
Battle escalates over allegations of NPS misconduct
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Environmental groups are pushing back against allegations that the National Park Service falsified data in an effort to oust a California oyster farm from a wilderness area.

The Interior Department — which houses NPS — is looking into allegations that officials purposely misled the public by using 1995 data from New Jersey police boats to represent the noise coming from Drakes Bay Oyster Co. A table in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) appears to imply the data were collected at the farm, and it misled a scientist who reviewed the document as part of a peer review Interior commissioned (Greenwire, March 27).

The controversy is the latest in a string of headaches for Interior over NPS research on Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which is fighting to renew its lease in a national wilderness area. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has closely followed the controversy, has since accused the service of building a “deceptive and potentially fraudulent” case against the company (E&ENews PM, March 29).

But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin say the charges are overblown. They point to the fact that the EIS fully cites the sources of the noise data in its references, even if such clear citations are not on the table itself.

In a recent letter to Interior Scientific Integrity Officer Ralph Morgenweck, EAC executive director Amy Trainer calls the allegations “unfounded.”

“We are particularly concerned about the recent claims both because of the manner in which they have been politicized by Senator Feinstein, and, like previous ones, are baseless, unscientific, and distract from the real issue facing Secretary Salazar: whether to uphold long-standing national park laws and policies, or roll them back to allow private industry to commercialize the heart of a national park,” she wrote.

A Feinstein spokesman did not return a request for comment. But in her letter to Salazar last month, Feinstein referenced the repeated problems found with NPS research on the farm; that includes a 2011 report from Interior’s solicitor’s office that found park scientists mishandled evidence and acted improperly (Greenwire, March 23, 2011).

Guessing game
The mystery over how NPS came to its estimates lingers. Interior is refusing to detail how NPS extrapolated the sound levels of the farm’s equipment from the 1995 New Jersey study and a 2006 “Construction Noise Users Guide” from the Federal Highway Administration.

Most puzzling is the sound level for the farm’s oyster tumbler. Five items in the 2006 guide match the sound level attributed to the tumbler in the draft EIS: a concrete-mixer truck, a drill-rig truck, a front-end loader, a rivet buster and a ventilation fan.

None come close to the tumbler, a piece of equipment that uses a small electric motor to sort oysters. In her letter to Interior, Trainer suggests that a concrete mixer is the most likely substitute.

But she also presents a seemingly random hypothesis. NPS, she writes, could have taken the 85 decibels attributed to “all other equipment” in the 2006 users guide and then “conservatively decided to reduce the loudness attributed to the oyster tumbler” to get the 79 decibels cited in the draft EIS.

Trainer uses similar logic in her defense of the 71 decibels the draft EIS attributes to the oyster farm’s motorboats, the loudest of which has a 40 horsepower engine. The only number that matches in the New Jersey study — which is cited in the EIS as the source — is the sound level for a 1995 Kawasaki Jet Ski.

But in her letter, Trainer hypothesizes the Park Service instead based the loudness of the farm’s motorboats on the sound level for a boat with a 175 horsepower engine. That engine is far louder than those of the farm’s boats, and the New Jersey study measured its sound level at 81 decibels.

Trainer contends that NPS just took off 10 decibels to reach the 71 decibels that is attributed to the farm’s boats in the EIS.

When asked how she came to these calculations, Trainer said her group “took an objective, reasonable approach to consider what equipment the NPS was likely comparing to like.”

But Interior is keeping silent on how NPS actually came to its numbers, which are used in the EIS to make a variety of assertions. Among them is that the farm’s motorboats can be heard more than 1.3 miles away. The draft EIS also contends that the oyster tumbler — which sorts the shellfish with a far quieter engine than that of the boats — can be heard 2.3 miles away.

‘Good enough for government work’
To PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, the debate over the noise data is irrelevant. Even if NPS made mistakes in presenting the data — by not clearly marking the sound levels as estimates — it falls short of scientific misconduct, he said.

The Park Service has limited funds and limited time. The draft EIS is “good enough for government work,” he said.

“It’s a minor mistake. It doesn’t invalidate the larger product,” he said. “This is a game of academic gotcha that misses the broader point.”

That point, to environmental groups, is that the oyster farm sits in an area that Congress designated as wilderness decades ago. If Interior allows the company to stay, they contend that it would go against policy and set a precedent that could endanger wilderness areas throughout the country.

Indeed, the Park Service was poised to kick out the farm before Feinstein intervened in 2009, inserting language in the fiscal 2010 spending bill that explicitly allowed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to grant the farm a 10-year renewal. The EIS process began after that.

Feinstein, Ruch said, “appears to be upset by the process her own legislation created.”

“This is not rocket science — motor boats and machinery make noise and this location, Drakes Estero, is supposed to be wilderness,” he said. “Senator Feinstein’s repeated personal interventions for this one company have become the very epitome of political interference with science to which she claims to be objecting.”

Ruch and Trainer have taken particular aim at Corey Goodman, a scientist who has long criticized NPS for its research on the oyster farm. Goodman became involved in the controversy when he gave expert testimony to the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 2007; since then, he has spent countless hours scrutinizing the Park Service’s research.

Goodman publicized the noise data issues last month, sending a letter to Salazar that requested an investigation into possible scientific misconduct.

In a recent interview, Goodman said Trainer’s letter responding to his allegations raised more questions than answers. The assertion that the sound levels in the EIS were the result of random calculations would be a more serious problem than his assumption that NPS based them off louder equipment.

“Whatever it is, it was a completely inappropriate number to pick that completely misrepresented what the engine sounds like and it clearly bamboozled the peer reviewer,” Goodman said.

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the department is conducting a review of the allegations. The agency’s scientific integrity policy requires Interior to launch a preliminary review to determine whether such allegations are substantiated and thus necessitate a larger investigation.

But all sides of the controversial issue seem to agree to one thing: NPS should make it clear how they calculated the noise levels of the farm’s equipment.

“I do think it would help in the final EIS to list all of their assumptions and specify how these numbers came about,” Trainer said. “There’s room for improvement.”

 

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2 Comments

  1. The author is neither a scientist nor a journalist. Rather, she’s a local activist and ardent supporter of the oyster company at Pt Reyes Seashore. This isn’t news. It’s commentary.

    Reply
    • Emily Yehle is a highly respected environmental journalist who writes for Greenwire, a leader in environmental policy news. Ms. Yehle lives in the Washington DC area. She is neither a local advocate nor an ardent supporter of the oyster company. Rather she is a national journalist who has been covering this story. In addition to Greenwire, her articles have appeared in the New York Times.

      Reply

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