Court Orders Release of New Jersey Science Board Nominees
Successful Open Records Suit to Reveal Industry Sponsorship of Science Board Picks
Trenton — A state superior court has ordered the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to surrender records on industry efforts to pack a new Science Advisory Board, according to the ruling posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the court order, the names, résumés and sponsorship letters will be released to PEER. .
On September 29, 2009 PEER sued DEP for violating the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) when it denied a PEER request seeking public records related to industry nominees and political lobbying for the Science Advisory Board (SAB). The DEP had broadly claimed that requested documents were OPRA-exempt, claiming that information about pending Board appointments is analogous to job applicant forms and thus confidential, even though SAB members would not be DEP employees and would be unpaid.
In a decision dated February 18, 2010, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg brushed aside DEP’s legal position as without merit and ordered the agency to provide the SAB materials to PEER, whom she declared the prevailing party. PEER’s case was argued by Michael Pisauro of the Princeton-based firm of Frascella & Pisauro, LLC.
In her ruling Judge Feinberg indicated that DEP had “finalized its recommendations of candidates for the SAB on January 15, 2010” but that a final decision by holdover Commissioner Mark Mauriello was “held in abeyance” at the behest of the incoming Christie administration. That list of final recommendations contains several affiliated with DuPont, private water companies, and some of New Jersey’s largest consulting firms which advise industry on environmental standards and permit requirements. Notably, Mauriello had met with the Chemistry Industry Council concerning the composition of the SAB.
“Regulated industry and their consultants have an obvious and enormous interest in influencing DEP scientific positions,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that the controversial 12-member board was created by former Commissioner and current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson when she abolished the DEP Division of Science & Research. “Our concern is that advisers with an economic dog in the fight will bring biases that make them unsuitable sources for objective scientific advice.”
The Administrative Order creating the SAB specifies a conflict of interest review of nominees but does not specify what standards should be applied to determine “financial or personal interest,” nor does it define what those terms mean in the context of the SAB. In recent months, DEP scientific studies have been subjected to intense industry lobbying efforts on public health topics ranging from the effects of chemicals, such as PFOAs made by DuPont, to cement dust blowing through Camden.
“We went to court because the selection of scientific advisers should be done out in the open so that any industry ties are known in advance,” Wolfe added. “We call on the Christie administration to reconsider the SAB concept and provide real safeguards, so that affected industries cannot use the process to inject influence and delay, weaken, or derail scientific assessments that are used to set health standards.”