Obama Administration

Obama administration to skeptical judge: Bush's salmon-rescue plan is A-OK

To highlight yet another example of how the Obama administration's environmental policies don't always look that different from the Bush administration's, note that today the National Marine Fisheries Service tried to assure a skeptical federal judge that a Bush-era salmon-rescue plan was just fine -- even though it ruled out disabling dams on the Snake River.

For years, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland has been ruling that the Bush administration's blueprint to bring back struggling salmon runs on the Snake and Columbia rivers just didn't measure up. When environmentalists, tribes, sportfishing interests and the state of Oregon complained that the Obama-era Fisheries Service plan was no better than Bush's, Redden gave the agency three months to review the plan.

A pivotal question is whether four dams on the Snake River -- which produced about 5 percent of the Pacific Northwest's electricity, last I checked -- should be "breached," meaning partially removed to let the river flow more freely again. The dams and the changes they cause in the river kill some of the small salmon migrating to sea there.

After a three-month review, the Fisheries Service said the Bush-era plan needed only minor modifications. It refused to start the years-long planning process that would be required to breach the dams. It didn't even budge on a lesser step: letting more water flow through the dams without producing electricity -- "spill" -- to help the fish.

The best quote of the day -- and even this is a tired analogy, bearing witness to the tenure of this controversy -- came from Nicole Cordan, a campaigner with Save Our Wild Salmon:

Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
 

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

Obama again looks pretty much like Bush, this time allowing mining companies to dump toxic waste on public land

In my post on the week’s biggest enviro news – Obama’s massive expansion of offshore oil drilling – I noted that increasingly, Obama's environmental decisions are indistinguishable from those made by the previous inhabitant of the White House. Nothing demonstrates that better than this week’s biggest sleeper enviro news: Obama approving dumping of small mountains of toxic waste on public land.

It’s all related to the General Mining Law of 1872, which even today gives mining companies access to gold, silver and other precious metals on public land – without asking the mining firms to pay anything to the public for the minerals taken off public land.

Obama's decision this week – which has gotten very little attention – backs the  Bush administration's stance: allow mining companies to use large amounts of land around their mines to dump mining waste laced with all kinds of nasty stuff.

To really get the picture of how industrial-scale gold mining is done in America today, you have to understand that whole hillsides are ground to dust and then doused with cyanide to extract the tiny percentages of gold contained in the ore.

After that, these whole hillsides worth of dirt have to go somewhere. Miners want to use public land for that. The Bush administration said OK. This week, so did the Obama administration, acting in a case in which enviros challenged a Bush-era decision allowing the waste dumping on so-called “millsite” land around the actual mine.

Scientists: Obama administration muzzles us as much as George W. Bush's did

It was a year ago this month that President Obama issued a memo giving underlings three months to draw up policies “to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.” But, as New Scientist blogger Peter Alhous put it the other day

“We're still waiting, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is ... well, concerned about the delay.”

Now comes a new survey of scientists by researchers from George Mason University’s Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, or SKAPP. It  says the Obama administration is – this seems hard to believe – not doing any better than the previous Bush administration on the squelching-science score.

 Researchers interviewed 37 federal scientists at 13 federal agencies in 2008, when George W. in front of a flag was the picture gracing the walls on federal offices. They returned in the summer of 2009 to the same researchers. And?

 "Most subjects did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration."

Recall that the Bush administration had a terrible record on this score, which we covered at Dateline Earth.

Slow government action under Freedom of Information Act = a less robust democracy

I was driving the other day when my celphone started vibrating. I pulled it from my pocket. It was a call from a northern Virginia number I didn't recognize. I dutifully pulled over and answered. It was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling back about a Freedom of Information Act request -- one that I filed nearly three months earlier, back in the first days of winter. Note that spring starts this Saturday. The phone call I took as I sat by the side of the road in my two-seater Honda was the first time I had spoken with an EPA official about the request. The story for which I was gathering information when I filed the request ran Jan. 12.

Now, at the time I filed the request, I was desperate for information about what the EPA had to say about a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I was putting together a story on new research that suggests dangerously high concentrations of these PAH chemicals may be coming off parking lots with coal-tar sealants.

Why was I desperate? Because, as I explained yesterday in kicking off this series of Sunshine Week posts, the EPA had simply refused to have a meaningful conversation about what was -- and still is -- emerging as a major potential threat to public health. (It's also a threat that has not been written about very much, btw. Our story for MSNBC was far and away the highest profile the issue has achieved to date.)

The caller from an EPA northern Virginia office was Crystal Samuels. She wanted to know if I still wanted that information. In her introduction, she was apologetic about the time lapse, telling me:

Obama administration pounds chest about transparency, but will have to better than this

The other day the Obama administration's "Chief Information Officer" -- or CIO... isn't that clever? -- was in Seattle decrying a "culture of faceless unaccountability" in government. His boast:

"This is part of the President's agenda: to make sure we’re hardwiring transparency into the culture of the federal government."

What a bunch of horse patootie.

At least that's the way Vivek Kundra's chest-beating looks from the trenches, for me and for other journalists trying to get information from the federal government, and particularly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kundra's statement in front of a geek-heavy audience in Seattle is worth examining now because today kicks off Sunshine Week, the annual exercise in which open-government activists yap it up with fellow citizens about the importance of our democratic government being truly transparent with citizens. As a journalist, a fair amount of what I do is find out what government is up to, and tell my fellow citizens.

Now,  Kundra's statement about Obama's agenda may be correct. But I'm here to tell you, friends, that the agenda ain't trickling down to the trenches.

Want proof? In this post today I'll detail how the EPA simply failed to engage with us for a recent InvestigateWest story of great nationwide importance.

Obama administration tries to sell itself as more open and transparent; don't believe it

Friends, it's Sunshine Week, the annual push by those who would democratize our government by opening up our government to make our case. So Dateline Earth is taking a one-week hiatus while I populate InvestigateWest's From The Field blog with tales of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to engage with me and other journalists; how the EPA routinely drags out simple requests for public records; how the Obama administration is going to court to fight numerous requests for public records; and how the Obama administration is no better than George W. Bush's when it comes to squelching government scientists. Finally, courtesy of the Society of Environmental Journalists, we'll provide a list of important information sources for citizens, citizen journalists and yes even full-time journalists to use in prying information out of the government. It's all over at our From The Field blog.

-- Robert McClure