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September 11, 2006

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Integrity in Science Watch

Week of 09/11/2006

EPA Committee Will Debate Best Ways To Monetize Human Life

The economics committee of the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Board meets this week to consider alternative methods for valuing human life when regulating pollution -- a crucial component of cost-benefit analyses. The Environmental Economics Advisory Committee includes James Hammitt, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which is a largely industry-funded institute whose former director, John Graham, headed the regulation monitoring office at the Office of Management and Budget during President George W. Bush's first term. It also includes Georgetown University professor Ted Gayer, who is a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and University of Maryland professor Maureen Cropper, who will chair the committee and sits on advisory boards for the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the AEI-Brookings Center on Regulation, which has questioned the benefit of various economic regulations. The EPA sought to balance the committee by including several cost-benefit economists formerly associated with environmental groups.

Many environmental groups oppose cost-benefit analysis entirely, preferring the precautionary principle when considering the health impacts of toxics. "All those people on the panel have bought into the economic framework" and are deliberating a "narrow technical problem arising from a larger issue - should you be putting a dollar value on life," said Tufts University professor Frank Ackerman, who is co-author of "Priceless" and a member of the Center for Progressive Reform. Ackerman and others at CPR believe that "cost-benefit analysis cannot produce more efficient decisions because the process of reducing life, health, and the natural world to monetary values is inherently flawed."

Bush Administration Voids Whistleblower Protections in Clean Water Act

The Bush administration has eliminated whistleblower protections for federal employees operating under the Clean Water Act (CWA). A November 2005 memo by Acting Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury, obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act, claims a loophole gives the federal government "sovereign immunity" against whistleblower lawsuits brought under CWA. Most environmental laws contain similar language, but specifically mention the federal government. The CWA does not, according to the Bradbury memo.

The memo was written to justify Labor Department actions in the case of Sharyn Erickson, an EPA employee fired for reporting problems with agency contracts for toxic clean-ups. An administrative law judge called EPA's conduct "reprehensible" and awarded Erickson $225,000 in punitive damages. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao overturned the ruling. "It is astonishing for the Bush administration to now suddenly claim that it is above the law," said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who is handling Erickson's appeal of the Labor Secretary's ruling. "Congress could end this debate by simply declaring that it intends that the whistleblower protections of these anti-pollution laws apply to the federal government." Erickson is appealing her case in federal circuit court.

NIH Scientists' Buckraking Still Unpunished

A senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health chose "not to follow agency procedures" in at least 38 separate instances over several years, according to an internal summary from December recently obtained by The Los Angeles Times. Thomas J. Walsh, a leading NIH cancer researcher and member of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a specialized branch led by the surgeon general, was found to have "engaged in serious misconduct, in violation of the Department's Standards of Conduct Regulations." Walsh received over $100,000 from 1999 to 2004 from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, some for which he conducted clinic trials (see Integrity in Science Watch). The report, conducted by NIH lawyers and ethics experts, projected that Walsh's conflicts of interest might lead to his dismissal from government service, but to date no action has been taken. Officials at the NIH have said that they lack authority to discipline members of the corps, noting that "[I]f he were a civilian employee, his actions would lead to a recommendation for his proposed removal." A congressional hearing set for Thursday will focus on the NIH's handling of disciplinary decisions related to Walsh and other senior scientists, including P. Trey Sunderland III, who has accepted $612,000 from Pfizer (see Integrity in Science Watch).

Polluters Getting Free Ride from Bush

Federal prosecution of criminal and civil pollution violations by industry have plummeted since the current administration took control in 2001, according to a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility press release. Anti-pollution enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency, Fish & Wildlife Service, and others is significantly lower than during the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations. The Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) database shows referrals for new environmental criminal prosecutions government-wide have dropped by more than half (54 percent) from 2000 to 2005 and referrals for new civil prosecutions of environmental offenses have declined by more than a third (34 percent) between 2000 and 2003. "This Bush administration can make no claim to law and order credentials when it comes to pollution," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "Corporate transgressors have growing reason for confidence that environmental violations will not trigger federal prosecution."

Odds and Ends

The Cleveland Clinic, which made headlines this year for its chief's conflicts of interest (see Integrity in Science Watch), will host a national forum, "A National Dialogue on Biomedical Conflicts of Interest and Innovation Management," September 20. The forum will examine the interface between health care entities and industry. ("Cleveland Clinic to host national summit on biomedical conflicts of interest," Biotech Law Weekly, 9/20/06)