For Immediate Release: Mar 12, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Memos Outlining Major Environmental and Public Health Information Gaps Buried
Washington, DC — Nearly a score of expert assessments of critical unknowns about impacts from oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain were hidden from public view and not used in the official environmental review now nearing its conclusion, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group today posted the missing memos and is pressing for an investigation to identify who ordered them to not be released or even acknowledged.
In a summary memo dated February 26, 2018, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Alaska Regional Director Gregory Siekaniec outlined the “Research Gaps identified by [his] and other agency technical experts to inform Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Program Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS). The 18 memos “identify the types of information” needed for “planning, developing, and managing an oil and gas program in the 1002 area” of the refuge:
“Primary topics for the Resource Assessments include: soils, permafrost, wetlands, & vegetation; coastal resources; climate & snow; air quality; water resources; acoustic environment; contaminants; oil spills; caribou; other terrestrial mammals; fisheries; birds; subsistence; public health; visitor use; cultural resources; and paleontological resources.”
These assessments of information gaps were not included in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement whose public comment period ends tomorrow. In addition, the memos were not produced in response to on-target Freedom of Information Act requests, nor were they listed as withheld.
“The Trump administration apparently does not want to admit that it is flying blind in opening one of the most sensitive places on the planet to petroleum development,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former enforcement attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pointing out that the deliberate exclusion of the known unknowns may make the EIS legally vulnerable. “Reliance upon alternative facts may work on talk shows but they won’t stand up in court.”
Identified information needs cover an array of basic topics, including:
- There is no current baseline data for any of the natural resources that may be impacted;
- There has not been a vegetation survey in 25 years; and
- There is no oil spill recovery capacity or plan to contain other pollutants.
The senior official overseeing this effort is Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. In Bernhardt’s previous stint at Interior during the GW Bush years, his office changed the FWS biological assessment, making more than dozen material alterations to minimize predicted impacts. These changes were ascribed to “typographical errors.” PEER is asking Interior’s Office of Inspector General (IG) to investigate.
“Trump’s Interior Department is in a panicked rush to open the Arctic to drilling,” added Whitehouse, noting that Interior is trying to hurry the leasing schedule. “Ignoring these gaping information gaps constitutes resource management malpractice.”