Washington, DC — Brushing aside scientific analyses, Bush administration appointees drastically reduced water flows in the Klamath River leading to the largest fish kill in the history of the Pacific Northwest, according to testimony released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In the wake of press reports about the involvement of Vice President Dick Cheney, Congress is now asking how high up the orders came to cut water flows in the Klamath.
Tomorrow, July 31st at 10 a.m., the House Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing entitled “Crisis of Confidence: The Political Influence of the Bush Administration on Agency Science and Decision-Making.” Witnesses include top officials from the Interior and Commerce Departments, the latter of which houses the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). This is the second in a series of committee hearings probing political manipulation of agency science. A major focus of this hearing is the Klamath fish kill in which at least 33,000 adult salmon, including coho salmon (a federally protected species), died in September 2002 following an abrupt decision to significantly cut in-stream flows.
One witness will be Michael Kelly, a former NMFS biologist who led the Klamath technical team until, in disgust, he asked to be re-assigned. Kelly recounts being directed to conclude, contrary to available evidence, that sharply reduced flows would not adversely affect federally protection salmon. “I was asked to make 1 + 1 = 3,” he stated, noting that the order was both “bizarre” and illegal.
“This is a hearing that Congress should have held four years ago but, until recently on Capitol Hill, oversight meant overlook,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represented Kelly when he blew the whistle back in 2002 on key biological findings rewritten by political appointees. “Scientific fraud has now become a central tenet of federal policy; it is not confined to one agency but runs the gamut of policy from global warming to ground squirrels.”
Even after the Klamath fish kill, NMFS ordered no investigation of what occurred. Instead –
- James Lecky, the NMFS official who directly gave Kelly the illegal order was promoted to become the agency’s Director of Protected Resources, overseeing all biological opinions on threatened and endangered species;
- A 2005 PEER survey of NMFS scientists found a strong majority (58%) saying they knew of cases in which high-level appointees or managers “inappropriately altered” biological determinations and more than half (53%) were aware of cases in which “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of …scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention”; and
- NMFS Director William Hogarth refused to accept the possibility of political interference, writing that scientists who say so do not “understand the basis for management decisions.”
Kelly, who resigned from NMFS altogether in 2004, recommends in his testimony that the agency create an administrative record of any amendments to scientific documents made by political appointees and that guidelines for protecting essential fish habitat be made mandatory. Finally, Kelly calls for a criminal investigation into the actions on the Klamath that resulted in the death of thousands of protected species.