Trenton — With no legislative involvement, New Jersey has handed control over key environmental and public health science to a politically-selected group of advisors, several of whom have industry ties, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, Governor Chris Christie has snuffed out independent public agency science and shelved years of important scientific work on vital topics such as risk assessments for drinking water quality standards and toxic cleanup standards.
The 16-member Science Advisory Board is selected by and answers to the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). In testimony last week on DEP’s budget, Bob Martin, the current Commissioner, says he has charged this interdisciplinary advisory board with making scientific calls on a broad portfolio of eco-issues. Yet, despite this outsized role, the Science Advisory Board –
- Does not allow the public to attend its meetings, which occur via conference call;
- Has no posted agenda or regular schedule of meetings. The Board last met in June 2011;
- Works only on issues put before it by the Commissioner;
- Lacks any independent review of its work products, which may or may not be published or disclosed to the public, subject to the sole discretion of the Commissioner; and
- Allows a “confidential” screening for potential conflicts-of-interest from employers or clients, again subject to the sole purview of Commissioner Martin.
The stultifying shadow of the Science Advisory Board is already having big effects:
- The state’s 27-year old Drinking Water Quality Institute, which determines the scientific basis of maximum contamination levels for chemicals in drinking water, has been virtually jettisoned. In March 2009, the Institute issued a report recommending new or tighter standards for 13 chemicals but that report was shelved and its chair resigned in frustration;
- The Science Advisory Board has only produced two very narrow reports. One of those reports, on diesel emission retrofit technology, is so opaque as to be virtually useless; and
- Commissioner Martin indicates he plans to use the board as a tool to weaken or eliminate current standards on stream buffers and aquifer protections.
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