WASHINGTON — Career government experts in the arcane field of air quality modeling have joined to oppose a new Bush administration policy that they say threatens air quality over national parks and wilderness areas.
In a rare internal protest, they contend that science is being manipulated to suit policy objectives.
The air quality modelers in all but one of the Environmental Protection Agency's 10 regions have told their bosses that they believe the policy, which alters the air quality modeling for North Dakota's national parks and wilderness areas, represents "substantial changes from past air quality modeling guidance
and accepted methods."
They also warned that the policy change "could set a precedent" for other regions, according to an internal EPA memo dated April 21.
Veteran EPA officials said the agency's modelers decided to take a stand against the policy because they were offended by what they termed the administration's efforts to use science to mask a policy change that would hurt air quality. They also were worried that the new policy would make it more difficult to protect the air over federal lands.
"I was aghast," said one of the modelers, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The modelers said they decided to write the memo despite fears of repercussions.
"This is what our job is — to protect air quality," the modeler said. "If we don't speak up at a potential threat like this, what are we for?"
Bush administration officials involved in the new policy rejected the notion that they had altered the science to meet their policy aim.
"That's ridiculous," said Bill Wehrum, counsel to the EPA's air office. "Absolutely untrue.
"We've been accused of trying to give the state a break, but that's not the case."
The EPA's regional modelers and the analyses they produce are so deep in the agency's bureaucracy that they escape public notice. But their work can make a crucial difference in determining whether industries can increase pollution and whether the air will become clearer or more healthful.
"This is an unprecedented stand by career EPA scientists who are fighting for integrity in the basic foundation of EPA's air pollution control policies," said Vickie Patton, a former EPA career employee who is now an attorney for Environmental Defense, a national environmental group.
Analysts who follow the way the Bush administration has been running agencies that deal in science said the modelers' complaint echoed critics' concerns that the administration had adjusted scientific analysis — on issues from global warming to AIDS — to meet political objectives. The risk, they said, is that the public would begin to question the credibility of the government's science and the regulations that stemmed from it.
"Americans have great doubts about government in many areas, but where government has always been strong has been on the science," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "There hasn't been a consistent perception of government manipulation of the facts. But this administration is doing considerable damage to public confidence in the facts."
Some veteran EPA officials said the case of the new modeling techniques for the air over North Dakota's national parks and wilderness areas was a perfect example.
"The modelers believe it was manipulated in a manner to give a predetermined answer," said another longtime EPA official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Much of the concern of the modelers is that the agreement that was reached with the state of North Dakota allows them to manipulate the data in a way that will demonstrate less of an impact [from polluting power plants] than was actually occurring."
The Clean Air Act provides special protection for the air over national parks and wilderness areas, allowing only minor increases in pollution. Modeling done by EPA's Region 8, which includes North Dakota, found that pollution in the state had increased since 1977, the baseline year, and that the state would have to force reductions in pollution before it could allow more power plants to be built. The state, which has ample supplies of coal, wants to open more plants so it can produce and export energy to other areas.
The modelers specifically criticized the new policy for allowing the state to choose the year it wants as the baseline, which shows whether pollution has increased more than the minimal amount allowed; the higher the pollution in the baseline year, the more pollution that will be allowed in the future. A 2002 analysis by the EPA's Region 8 suggested that allowing facilities to pick their baseline years could more than double the pollution levels.
But administration officials said they let the state pick the baseline years because regulations allowed them to do so.
The EPA modelers also criticized the policy for letting state modelers use average emissions over the whole year, rather than periods of peak emissions.
But Bush administration officials countered that they opted to use annual emissions because there were no good data on peak emissions days from the late '70s.
What troubles the modelers most is that the changes the administration made to modelers' general practice all appear to allow higher levels of pollution. That, in turn, opens the way for the state to allow more power plants without requiring costly pollution controls on existing facilities.
"If you rearrange your science to fit your goal, that's not really science," said the first unnamed EPA official.
But a director in the EPA's office of air quality, planning and standards, Bill Harnett, disagreed.
"It isn't about allowing more pollution," said Harnett, a longtime career official. "What it's about is doing the analysis in a manner consistent with our rules and with what Congress intended."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times