New Jersey Slaps Gag Order on Environmental Scientists
Embarrassing Chromium Study Prompts Management Review of Scientific Findings
Washington, DC — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection today imposed new restrictions on the release of technical and scientific information to the public, according to a memo posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The new directive allows DEP managers to hold completed scientific work in un-releasable draft form for an indefinite period.
The June 1, 2009 memo by Jeanne Herb, Director of Policy, Planning and Science at DEP, bars disclosure of any “technical/scientific reports and other information” including work by outside scientists unless:
- The material has undergone a seven-stage review process, including approval by DEP political appointees and press officers. The DEP Commissioner must also be notified in advance of any scientific report on an undefined “Hot Issue”;
- Even completed studies may not be “available for public distribution via print or online sources (i.e., journal and magazine articles)” until okayed by DEP management, including Ms. Herb; and
- Technical updates of the “online Environmental Trends Report” will also require management sign-off including the personal approval of Ms. Herb.
Significantly, Ms. Herb’s non-publication memo is itself labeled “Draft Deliberative” and thus not subject to release. The nature of the gag order is reminiscent of the controls required during the now-departed Bush administration many of which are being rescinded by the Obama administration in an attempt to foster government transparency and openness.
“This directive authorizes DEP managers to hide inconvenient technical information from the public until the information is irrelevant,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that DEP had just subordinated its scientific branch into a wing of a “policy” office. “The state’s Open Public Records Act will become a dead letter if everything of interest remains classified as a draft.”
These new restrictions were apparently prompted by the uncoordinated release in April of a devastating risk assessment on chromium that found current New Jersey standards more than 200 times laxer than needed to protect public health. This new chromium risk assessment was released by PEER and is still not posted on the New Jersey DEP web page.
“There is no justification for secrecy in scientific information that bears on public health,” Ruch added. “New Jersey’s environment will be better protected by scientific disclosure, debate and due speed in the reporting of findings but it seems that the only science that New Jersey DEP wants practiced is the political kind.”