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Environment: Scientific misconduct and cover-ups on Keystone XL pipeline wildlife studies

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Official documents suggest that top federal officials have once again subverted science to downplay impacts from a major development project.

No relief yet for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whistleblowers

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — It’s pretty clear that top-level decisions on the Keystone XL pipeline are going to be made based primarily on political considerations, but a watchdog group is charging that federal agencies are taking extraordinary steps to cover their tracks after issuing flawed and politically tainted reports.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior’s inspector general, the tainted process damages the department’s credibility and integrity.

A series of documents released this week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, managers with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used misleading maps to downplay impacts to endangered species.

“As outrageous as the misconduct in this case was, it is not an isolated occurrence,” PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said after releasing a series of documents showing how agency scientists were bullied by their superiors.

According to Ruch, the the USFWS is also withholding a report on scientific misconduct. The agency has been ordered to release it unless it can prove the report would reveal corporate trade secrets and confidential law enforcement techniques.

“The leadership of the Service abets scientific subversion by keeping it hidden,” Ruch said in a press release. Agency higher-ups not only retaliated against scientists who voiced objections but rushed into publication of a bogus scientific journal article to cover their tracks, Ruch claimed.

At issue is the American burying beetle, a critically endangered species, that has seen its range dwindle from 35 states to the plains of South Dakota, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma — areas in the proposed path for the $5.3 billion Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

While some might argue that the fate of a humble beetle is not a big deal, the process of the agency deals with the science illustrates the bigger picture: endangered species won’t be allowed to stand in the way of oil company profits.

After agency scientists filed a formal complaint, a scientific review panel found that two USFWS supervisors improperly manipulated scientific information, making them “guilty” of scientific misconduct.

According the panel Dixie Porter, supervisor of the USFWS Oklahoma Ecological services field office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Luke Bell, USFWS Branch Chief for Threatened and Endangered Species and Contaminants:

  • Adopted flawed models that dramatically shrunk the known range of the ABB;
  • Compounded their misconduct by improperly rushing an article into publication that both “knowingly impeded” the original panel investigation and also would “further degrade the endangered status of the ABB.…” Despite this finding, FWS has yet to retract the paper; and
  • Retaliated against line scientists who objected, including imposition of “several staff suspensions.”

This is the first time a U.S. Department of Interior agency has upheld a scientific misconduct complaint under its relatively new scientific integrity policies. Yet the USFWS refused to release the reports to PEER under the Freedom of Information Act. PEER obtained them by filing an appeal with Interior’s Office of Solicitor, the administrative step before a lawsuit, and the Solicitor ordered release of redacted versions of the reports.

The panels’ findings were made in March and April of 2013. In July, Interior Inspector General Mary Kendall issued an extraordinary Management Advisory to Secretary Sally Jewel that the USFWS had yet to take “any formal and permanent action against the offending supervisors” but, to the contrary, “recent actions appear to have elevated their status.”

The two supervisors, Porter and Bell, were not formally removed from their positions but detailed to prestigious new assignments.  Bell has since resigned to take a position in the oil and gas industry. Porter is expected to resign as soon as she can find another job. Meanwhile, the whistleblowing scientists had yet to receive any “relief,” according to the advisory.

“As it stands now, scientists who report scientific misconduct jeopardize their careers because the agency hierarchy stands by the violators,” Ruch said, pointing to numerous reports of how deeply politicized FWS science has become.

Links courtesy PEER:

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