08-30-12 Greenwire: Park service must make lack of data plain in oyster case — NAS

Kevin Lunny, the owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., said in an email that the report’s findings should lead Salazar to renew the farm’s lease.

“For more than six years, the National Park Service has been telling the people of West Marin that our oyster farm and our workers were harming harbor seals, choking eelgrass and otherwise doing great harm to the environment,” he said. “It’s not true. The National Academy, having finished its second review since 2009, concluded that NPS did not have data or science to support its claims (again). We now know that NPS just plain ‘made it up’ to drive us out of business. NPS Director Jarvis owes our community an explanation and an apology.”

Greenwire 

13. INTERIOR:

Park Service must make lack of data plain in oyster case — NAS

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, August 30, 2012

The National Park Service should make it clear in an upcoming environmental impact statement that it does not have enough information to establish a California oyster farm’s impact on the environment, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences.

The report analyzed the Park Service’s draft environmental impact statement on Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which is fighting to stay in a national wilderness area. The farm’s lease is up at the end of November, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will consider the final EIS in his decision on whether to allow the farm to stay.

The draft EIS found that the oyster farm’s continued operation would harm local flora and fauna. Such conclusions are “reasonable,” but also lack strong scientific support and come with significant uncertainty. That means the farm may have less of an influence on some resources than stated in the draft EIS, the NAS report said.

For example, the draft EIS concludes that the farm’s continued operation would have a “moderate adverse impact” on harbor seals — a judgment that has become controversial in the debate over the oyster farm. The NAS panel, however, found that the same data could be used to argue that the farm would have minor impacts.

In such cases, the NAS panel recommended that the Park Service include both conclusions in the EIS, as well as the degree of uncertainty related to them. It also recommended that the agency suggest environmental mitigation measures as permit conditions for the farm.

Thomas Malone, chair of the NAS committee that wrote the report, emphasized in a statement the difficulty of writing an EIS when there is little scientific literature on Drakes Estero or on how oyster farming changes that ecosystem.

“Trying to assess environmental impacts based on a limited amount of information would be similar, for example, to estimating rainfall for an entire year when rainfall records are only available for March,” said Malone, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The draft EIS could have done a better job discussing how this limited data on Drakes Estero results in less definitive scientific conclusions.”

Kevin Lunny, the owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., said in an email that the report’s findings should lead Salazar to renew the farm’s lease.

“For more than six years, the National Park Service has been telling the people of West Marin that our oyster farm and our workers were harming harbor seals, choking eelgrass and otherwise doing great harm to the environment,” he said. “It’s not true. The NationalAcademy, having finished its second review since 2009, concluded that NPS did not have data or science to support its claims (again). We now know that NPS just plain ‘made it up’ to drive us out of business. NPS Director Jarvis owes our community an explanation and an apology.”

The panel’s report is only the latest in a string of reviews of the service’s conclusions on how the oyster farm affects Drakes Estero. In 2009, NAS looked at the agency’s research on the farm and concluded there was “a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse effects on Drakes Estero.”

The report released today fulfills a congressional request and paves the way for Interior to release the final EIS. Salazar is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks on the farm’s future.

But if initial reactions are any indication, the NAS report has not settled any of the passionate disagreements over the Park Service’s research on the farm.

Corey Goodman, a scientist who has long criticized the agency for manipulating data, said in an email that the report confirms “what I have been saying since 2006, namely, that the National Park Service does not have the data to claim — as they have over and over again — that the oyster farm has a negative environmental impact on Drakes Estero.”

“The community and their elected officials need to ask some tough questions. Why the obsession at NPS with claiming scientific data where no such data exists, and harm where no harm exists?” said Goodman, who has filed a scientific integrity complaint with Interior and a fraud complaint with the agency’s inspector general (Greenwire, April 25). “The accountability for spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money rests at the top. It is time to ask why NPS leadership has been so obsessed with removing the oyster farm from Drakes Estero that they have allowed their agency to misuse science.”

The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which has argued that the farm does not have a place in a wilderness area, characterized the report differently.

“The National Academy of Sciences has affirmed that the National Park Service generally used the best available science in its review of [the] oyster operation’s impacts,” Amy Trainer, the group’s director, said in a statement. “Although the report raises valid questions about the best way to characterize the degree of environmental impacts from commercial oyster operations, its conclusions support the Park Service’s conclusion that the wilderness alternative is the environmentally preferable choice for Drakes Estero.”

An unusual EIS

The NAS panel’s 88-page report points to several odd features in the draft EIS that make its conclusions on environmental impact less clear and significantly uncertain.

The Park Service, for example, does not include an option of “negligible impact,” a term included in the Park Service’s internal guidance for following the National Environmental Policy Act. The omission of that option means that every impact must be described as beneficial or adverse.

But the farm’s impact on some resources — such as fish and water quality — may be best defined as negligible, rather than the “minor adverse” finding in the draft EIS, according to the NAS report.

The Park Service also declined to include levels of beneficial impact, but ranked adverse impact as “minor,” “moderate” or “major,” making comparisons difficult. Furthermore, the levels of adverse impact are not clearly defined.

The NAS panel recommends that the Park Service make changes in its final EIS to address those concerns, such as including a “negligible” option and better defining the intensity of impacts.

But even if the Park Service follows those recommendations, it will find it difficult to directly compare the environmental effects of closing the farm versus allowing it to stay.

That’s because its four alternatives are not measured from the same baseline. In most environmental impact statements, agencies are able to measure the effects of a federal action off the current baseline situation. But the oyster farm has been in commercial operation since the 1930s; the current environment is one where it exists.

So the Park Service set two baselines. It compared the continued operation of the farm to a theoretical situation where the farm does not exist — and it compared the closing of the farm to the current environmental situation.

While the agency acknowledged in the EIS the presence of two baselines, it still attempted to compare the “action” alternatives, where the farm stays, to the “no action” alternative, where the farm’s lease expires.

The NAS panel recommends that the Park Service segregate the two and “indicate that the assessments are not comparable due to use of different baselines.”

Peer review

The NAS report also tackles the so-called “Atkins report,” a peer review that Interior commissioned in the wake of criticism over the draft EIS.

Overall, it found that the range of expertise of the five peer reviewers “was insufficient to address all of the scientific topics” covered in the two EIS chapters they assessed. In particular, the review needed more expertise in water quality, wildlife and terrestrial soundscapes.

But much of the controversy over the peer review has focused on the acoustics section, written by Christopher Clark, a bioacoustics expert. Clark based his review on the assumption that the sound measurements of the farm in the draft EIS were taken on the farm — when in fact they were based on a 17-year-old study of New Jersey police boats (Greenwire, March 17).

The farm’s impact on the surrounding soundscape is the only finding in the draft EIS of a “major adverse impact.” But the NAS panel found that conclusion carried a high level of uncertainty; the impact, it found, might actually be minor.

The NAS report also criticizes the Park Service for not using first-hand noise data taken near the farm in 2011. The report recommends including that data in the final EIS.

Furthermore, the NAS panel disagrees with several of Clark’s conclusions, including his determination that the acoustics evidence presented in the draft EIS is “robust.” It also points out several shortcomings in the EIS data and analysis — though the NAS panel ultimately determined the Park Service’s conclusions are “reasonable.”

Among other things, the data in the draft EIS are not adequate to differentiate between the noise from the farm and noise from other activities such as kayakers and air flights.

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