Trenton — Industry wants to pack a new state environmental Science Advisory Board with its own scientists, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which today filed a lawsuit to obtain public records regarding the industry lobbying effort. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Mark Mauriello is reportedly making final picks for the 12-member board this week after meeting with the Chemistry Industry Council this Thursday.
The suit challenges the denial by the DEP of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request filed by PEER seeking public records related to industry nominees and political lobbying for the Science Advisory Board (SAB) appointments. The DEP broadly claimed that practically all the requested documents are exempt from OPRA on the grounds that the pending appointments will be treated like candidates for employment, and thus confidential. Board members, however, are not DEP employees, nor would they be paid.
“DEP cannot make public records secret on the basis of an analogy,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe who filed the document request. “Industry has a huge stake in getting friendly scientists on the board that will make the final recommendation on public health regulation.”
In late 2008, former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson abolished the Division of Science and Research, based in part on a recommendation of her Permit Efficiency Task Force, chaired by Chris Daggett, now an independent candidate for Governor. The Science Advisory Board is supposed to substitute for the work formerly done by DEP scientists.
Thus far, more than 100 nominations have been submitted. Industry associations have put forward scientists from major manufacturers such as DuPont and Merck as well as engineers and technical specialists from industry-oriented consulting firms. This Thursday, October 1st, Commissioner Mauriello, who chooses the board members, will meet behind closed doors with the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, the primary lobby group representing state-based manufacturers.
In recent months, DEP scientific studies have been the subject of intense industry lobbying pressure to amend or suppress, on public health topics ranging from the effects of chemicals, such as PFOAs made by DuPont, to cement dust blowing through Camden neighborhoods. The Administrative Order creating the SAB specifies a conflict of interest review of board nominees but it is not clear what specific rules will be applied, except that members are not supposed to act on matters in which they have a “financial or personal interest” – terms left undefined.
“It appears that industry will soon be providing the final edits on all scientific work done at DEP,” added Wolfe. “Without transparency in the selection process, there will always be the doubt that this board will more concerned with political science than environmental science.”
The OPRA lawsuit was filed today on behalf of PEER by Michael Pisauro of the Princeton-based firm of Frascella & Pisauro, LLC.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability