Flint, PFAS raised in D.C. hearing on Trump admin.’s scientific research clampdown

A Flint water protest
Residents brought five lanterns symbolizing the five years that have passed since the Flint water crisis began | Nick Manes

The Flint water crisis, PFAS contamination and climate change were key issues raised in a U.S. House hearing looking into scientistic research being stifled by the President Trump administration.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, July 17, 2019

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) chaired the U.S. House Science Subcommittee on Research & Technology hearing on Wednesday and brought up Flint in a tense exchange with a GOP colleague before experts were even questioned.

“We should refrain from weaponizing science to score political points. Unfortunately, it seems that my Democratic colleagues are intent on politicizing scientific integrity,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) in his opening statement.

As ranking member, Norman said he was “disappointed” in the “way this hearing was orchestrated.” He complained that committee staff wasn’t informed of the hearing “by phone call or email.”

Stevens wasn’t having it.

“You know who didn’t get a phone call?” she asked. “The people of Flint when the water was poisoned. You know who didn’t get a phone call? The people of New Orleans when their city was flooding. So I’m really proud of our witnesses who made the time to come here today. I’m proud of our community’s leadership and our outreach to too many agencies.”

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The hearing featured several experts, including Joel Clement, Arctic Initiative senior fellow for the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Clement was a top U.S. Interior Department adviser who said he was reassigned by then-Director Ryan Zinke in a “purge” after raising climate change concerns. He became a whistleblower against the Trump administration’s “anti-science and pro-fossil fuels agenda.”

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science & Democracy, noted that “we see a lot of environmental problems that are breaking where communities are desperate for information about what kinds of threats they face,” including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS.

Stevens noted PFAS chemicals are a “big issue for all of us in Michigan,” as we have the most sites of any state, including near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. State officials held a community meeting there on Tuesday that was protested by environmentalists and residents who don’t believe the U.S. Air Force is doing enough to clean up the site.

Oscoda residents protest meeting, doubt PFAS cleanup efforts

Like Norman, U.S. Rep. Jim Baird (R-Ind.) expressed concerns about the nature of the Capitol Hill hearing.

“You may disagree with the politics of current [Trump] administration,” he said. “But let’s stick to the facts of what is happening with science in our federal agencies. Not rumor, not exaggeration.”

Jim Baird

Baird holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science and noted his training.

“Science is science. But politics, as all of us on this side of the aisle know, is more complicated,” he said. “People may look at the same data, the same scientific data, and relevant information and come up with two different policy conclusions. There’s nothing inherently dishonest about that. In politics, we have disagreements.”

However, in her opening statement, Stevens stressed that “this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s not about one administration or another. It is about ensuring public trust in the conduct dissemination and use of scientific research in the federal government.”

That sentiment was echoed by John Neumann, managing director of science, technology Assessment and analytics for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), who noted in his opening statement a long history of administrations squelching scientific research.

“During the George W. Bush administration, government experts were ordered to change their testing procedures to suggest that children’s lunchboxes with lead in them were safe,” he said. “The Obama EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] watered down and change the scientific assessment about the impacts of fracking and drinking water in a way that misled the public. And then in the Trump administration, assessments of PFAS chemicals were held up. Scientists have been muzzled and climate change, and experts report the high levels of censorship and self-censorship.”

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko

Neumann added that for the last 20 years, journalists have “complained consistently” about access to federal government experts and said, “It’s only getting worse.”

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) talked about his bill, H.R. 1709 or the Scientific Integrity Act, which Stevens noted he began to draft in the summer 2016, prior to Donald Trump’s victory. Stevens called the bill “straightforward” and said it’s backed by the UAW.

“It outlines prohibited conduct for employees and federal agencies that conduct scientific research,” she said. “This includes suppressing scientific findings or coercing others to suppress scientific findings. It defined the rights and responsibilities of federal scientists and making public statements about their work to the media, the scientific community and the public. It directs federal agencies to developed adopt and enforce scientific integrity policies that meet the number of specified criteria.”

Tonko said he reached out across the aisle many times to get GOP support for his legislation.

“As an engineer with a deep respect for science, federal scientific integrity standards have been a concern of mine for many years, allowing political power or special interests to manipulate or suppress federal science hurts — it hurts all of us,” he said. “It leads to dirtier air and save water, toxic products on our shelves and chemicals in our homes and environment. And it has driven federal inaction in response to the growing climate crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill chairs the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee for the Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“When we talk about scientific integrity, it’s all about fostering and culture of respect for science throughout all levels of government,” she said. “Federal agencies need to listen to scientists and allow them to do their work free of political considerations. Agencies also need to appreciate the value of science and policy making, and the leadership of an agency should never be hostile to a scientist or treat science findings as a threat.”

Halpern said the legislation is “important and necessary.”

“Scientific integrity policies are essentially the ground rules for evidence in the political process that the government agrees to follow,” he said.

Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.


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