Did conservative groups prompt the dismissal of five state environmental researchers?
Most Californians have probably never heard of the Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants. Of the countless boards of scientists and researchers in state government and academia, the SRP is neither the most powerful nor the most glamorous. Its members—decorated University of California researchers—are tasked with checking the work of state-run environmental agencies, such as the Air Resources Board and the Department of Pesticide Regulation, to determine what risk certain airborne industrial chemicals have of making people sick. An important job, most would agree.
So when five of its nine members were abruptly dismissed from the panel last month, many with nothing more than a two-sentence “Thanks for your service” letter, a lot more people started paying attention to the SRP and who’s on it.
“It’s very important and complicated work,” said Paul Blanc, one of the panel’s four remaining incumbent members. “This mass turnover is unprecedented.”
Technically, none of the dismissed scientists were fired. Rather, their terms expired and the folks that normally make the appointments—Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Environmental Protection Agency, Assembly Speaker John Pérez—didn’t reappoint them.
Some argue, however, that conservative, business-friendly legal groups are to blame. And though Blanc managed to keep his seat on the expert panel, the chairman of the group, toxicologist John Froines, wasn’t so lucky.
You might remember Froines from recent regulatory debacles, such as the June decision by the Department of Pesticide Regulations to ignore its own scientists, led by Froines, when setting legal exposure limits of farmworkers to the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide. The department established the limit at more than 100 times what had been recommended.
Froines also presided over the SRP’s 2002 assessment of the herbicide metam sodium, which called for strict regulations. Froines is also an original member of the so-called “Chicago Seven,” a group of radicals that included famed “yippie” activist Abbie Hoffman.
Froines doesn’t offer much opinion on his ouster, instead praising the integrity of the panel itself, writing: “We maintained our commitment to doing the best science possible and we never wavered from that.”
Froines does not claim that outside industrial interests forced the SRP shakeup—but the outside interests themselves are happy with the results. The Pacific Legal Foundation, an anti-regulation law firm, is claiming the scalps of the five dismissed panel members, citing its longstanding lawsuit, which argued that members should adhere to three-year terms and not be repeatedly reappointed, such as Froines, who’s served since 1986.
“We felt it was essential going forward that it be staffed by new folks that were more conscious of the economical impact of their decisions,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Damien Schiff.
Meanwhile, a source with Assembly Speaker Pérez’s office hints that the dismissal was all a procedural misunderstanding between Pérez and UC president Mark Yudof: Yudof’s office sent the speaker a list of potential appointees, Froines and other incumbents weren’t on it, and Perez and other appointing powers thought the excluded scientists were ineligible.
UC provost Lawrence Pitts, however, reminds that incumbent SRP members are automatically eligible for reappointment.
Local environmental groups have closely watched the panel shake-up, as Froines is seen largely as a hero in the fight against the use of methyl iodide and other toxic chemicals. Paul Towers, director of Sacramento-based Pesticide Watch Education Fund, said he’ll be pushing the Cal/EPA to step in and reappoint Froines.
“We believe Dr. Froines and other members brought a wealth of experience and served the panel well over the years,” said Towers. “We can only suspect that conservative legal groups have forced a decision that is contrary to good science.”