Scientist blows whistle on dam removal assessment

News
Jun 22, 2012

A senior scientific advisor was fired by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) shortly after raising questions of bias in Bureau documents touting the benefits of removing four dams along Oregon and California’s Klamath River. The scientist in question, hydrometeorologist Dr. Paul R. Houser, has subsequently filed a whistle blowing allegation against the Department of Interior for breach of scientific integrity standards. Houser asserts that the Bureau suppressed his scientific opinion, and that he was reprimanded and ultimately fired for voicing an opinion that did not

support the agency’s vision.

The incident adds to a growing sense of concern among natural resource industries that the Department of Interior is suppressing the opinions of scientists in order to advance broadly preservationist goals. Recently, a string of leaked emails suggested that the National Parks Service has suppressed a scientific opinion stating that uranium mining outside Grand Canyon National Park would not affect ground water quality.

The current dispute takes place against the politically volatile backdrop of the Klamath Basin, a

watershed that has been wracked for over a decade by the competing interests of environmental groups, agriculture, and a number of Indian tribes which claim historic fishing rights on the river. USBR is currently developing an environmental impact statement/environmental impact report that will help inform Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s impending decision whether the Klamath dams should be removed.

Interest groups, both for and against the dams’ removal, are watching the process closely.

Houser initially called attention to potential bias issues last September when he was asked to review a USBR press release and a scientific summary on dam removal impacts. Houser described the documents as “extremely positive,” touting alleged ecological and economic benefits of dam removal while ignoring potential risks and uncertainties.

“Some expert panel reports last year concluded that removing the dams may have no beneficial impact at all to salmon, and in some cases, could actually make things worse,” Houser explained. “The science is uncertain. The expert panels are concerned that removing the dams without [mitigation] may not result in any benefit. What I saw in the press release and the summary document was all of these wonderful things that would happen.”

A self-described moderate, Houser makes a point of emphasizing that he has no personal agenda regarding whether the dams should stay or go. He did, however, feel that the content of the reports should have represented the full complexity of the dam removal issues.

“I just said, ‘Hey, it’s not that clear,’ ” Houser recalls. “The reality is, the science panel said that it’s not that clear. There’s all these other things you’ve got to do besides removing dams to have any positive impact. I just said, ‘Hey, let’s make this right.’” What followed, according to Houser’s allegation, was not an open discussion of his concerns, but rather an apparent attempt to keep his scientific criticisms from spilling over into the public sphere. Of particular concern to Houser was the explicit request both from USBR Deputy Commissioner for External and Intergovernmental Affairs Kira Finkler and Department of Interior Press Secretary Adam Fletcher that he not email his concerns, but send them via hard copy.

“What raised some alarm flags for me [was when] they said, ‘We don’t want you to create any discoverable documents,’ which seemed odd to me,” said Houser. “I was under the impression [that] with scientific integrity […] everything was supposed to be open and transparent. They wanted to make sure that my concerns were not available to a Freedom of Information Act request.”

The Department of Interior did not return a request for comment.

Houser, however, did not let the issue drop, and subsequently emailed his concerns to several other colleagues, an act which had repercussions.

“Apparently, it didn’t make my managers very happy. …My job changed dramatically from that point forward.”

Finkler issued Houser a poor job performance report

implying that Houser was not working as a team player and not advancing the secretary’s goals. Houser was subsequently let go after several months. The termination letter stated nothing about Houser’s claims of departmental bias, stating only that his skills were not a good fit for the position. Houser, however, doesn’t buy it.

“I have an international reputation for doing good work in my field,” stated Houser. “I’ve never received a poor performance review before, so this was really quite shocking to me. … It’s pretty clear that the government officials are wanting to justify dam removal,” added Houser, who pointed out that in 2009, Salazar stated that the dam removal initiative “will not fail.” According to Houser’s allegation, he was also informed by Finkler that “the Secretary wants to remove those dams.”

“They’re not looking at it very objectively,” concluded Houser.

Ironically, in addition to his scientific advisory role, Houser was also employed by USBR as a scientific integrity officer, and had helped write the Bureau’s scientific integrity policy. In a twist of events unexpected by Houser, he ultimately ended up using the policy he helped to author and enforce to call foul on the department.

“It surprised me that

when I did an action [where] I was really trying to enhance scientific integrity, I was pushed out because of it,” Houser observed, adding that his familiarity with the scientific integrity policy has at least given him the advantage of being able to make his whistle blowing claim efficiently. But the experience has left Houser, a widely published scientist with a successful professional record at NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the U.S. Geological Survey, with a jaundiced view of the Department of Interior and the way it treats its scientists.

“Knowing what I know now about the way that job is structured and works— it’s really there to forward the goals of the department, rather than science [which] is a secondary goal—I would have never have taken the job.”

For Houser, reading the National Parks Service emails recently leaked by Congressman Rob Bishop’s office, which reveal an apparent attempt to cover up scientific opinion, was a déjà vu experience. “They looked eerily familiar,” Houser remarked. “I think that we’re seeing a pattern in the way that the department is working. It should be of concern to the public. …If science is being manipulated, that’s not in the public trust.” —

Andy Rieber,

WLJ

Correspondent

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