Banning junk science from Capitol Hill

By Steve Milloy and Willie Soon
May 1, 2012 Washington Times

Federal courts have a system to keep junk science out of courtrooms. It’s time Congress adopts one, too.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing April 17 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), which is intended to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired electric power plants at a cost of about $10 billion per year.

The committee heard from several witnesses, some in support and some against the rule. But the testimony from one of the pro-MATS witnesses was disturbingly misleading.

Syracuse University professor Charles Driscoll was invited to testify by committee Democrats in order to bolster the notion that mercury emissions from U.S. power plant stacks are the major contributor of mercury to the Great Lakes region and that MATS would significantly improve this purported problem.

Mr. Driscoll obliged by testifying, “in many regions of the U.S., the fresh waters and coastal waters that provide food, recreation and employment to millions of people have been contaminated by mercury inputs. The major source of this mercury contamination is atmospheric deposition.”

But a 2012 study in the journal Environmental Pollution noted that mercury in Lake Michigan, for example, has declined dramatically (more than 50 percent) since the mid-20th century. The study’s explanation for this decline has nothing to do with atmospheric deposition of mercury, but rather it was due to the curtailment of direct industrial and wastewater discharges in the lake.

The study further noted that more research is needed to understand the wide variation in mercury among the Great Lakes, even though the different lakes each received a similar amount of mercury from the atmosphere.

These facts constitute more than just he-said-she-said as one of the co-authors of the Environmental Pollution study was none other than Charles Driscoll, who was careful not to let these inconvenient details from his own paper spoil his congressional testimony.

Regarding mercury in fish, Mr. Driscoll went on to state, “Indeed, every state in the U.S. has some sort of fish consumption advisory, and many states have blanket advisories.”

Moving past the scary rhetoric, the EPA qualifies Mr. Driscoll’s observations as follows: “Beginning in the early 1980s, states have monitored fish in more and more of their waters. … As a result, increases in advisories result primarily from increased sampling of previously untested waters by states and [Indian] tribes and are not necessarily due to increased levels or frequency of contamination.”

In concluding, Mr. Driscoll said, “The good news is that the science emerging from large-scale data synthesis efforts in the U.S. underscores the point that controlling U.S. sources of mercury emissions will decrease mercury contamination in the environment locally and regionally.”

But the reality, as demonstrated in data from around the world, including paleo-environmental data, show that today’s mercury deposition levels are neither exceptional nor alarming.

Of the estimated 12,000-plus tons of mercury emitted into the air annually (mostly from volcanic activity, forest fires and effusions from ocean and soils), only about 45 tons (less than 0.5 percent) comes from U.S. power plants – and is largely undetectable when compared to the naturally occurring background levels in our land and oceans.

This reality is already crystal-clear to the EPA, which has admitted that alleged “hazards to public health” from mercury emissions by U.S. power plants are “anticipated to remain after imposition” of its new regulations. That is, even if coal-fired power plants stopped emitting mercury entirely, environmental levels of mercury would remain the same.

So while Congress is the appropriate forum for discussion of these inconvenient details, for his part, Mr. Driscoll only contributed half-truths and partial data to the discussion.

We can hardly expect politicians to be familiar and conversant with such scientific detail and cannot expect them to be able to adequately cross-examine the likes of Mr. Driscoll (particularly within the five minutes allotted to members for questioning witnesses). There is also no opportunity in the congressional hearing format for expert witnesses to cross-examine or debunk one another.

As a result, the Charles Driscolls of the world are free to pollute hearings with junk science that can essentially never be effectively and timely challenged.

One possible solution is for scientific and technical portions of congressional hearings to be conducted by experts under the supervision of members, possibly under oath.

Whatever the solution, Congress must develop a means of hearing the whole of scientific truths – otherwise we will be at the mercy of half-truths.

Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com. Willie Soon is a Cambridge, Mass.-based physicist.

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4 responses to “Banning junk science from Capitol Hill

  1. Congress should have some common sense, how come we never had these problems years ago, before the EPA.

    The Congress should realize the only reason for the EPA regulations is to continue funding, and every year they get worse, and still the water we drink and the air we breathe is quite good.

    How come this year we had 3200 deaths, but not any in the preceding years
    The EPA needs to be completely defunded

  2. This is very similar to what George Woodwell did when he testified on the impact of DDT. His research and the paper published in Science showed declining levels, but, he “ginned up” the dangers and ignored his own data, resulting in the deaths of millions of children in the third world.

  3. Ben of Houston

    I think that it would be better to have a chief “prosecutor” and “defense” who organize their arguments as a pro and con with a stated goal of seeking the truth, not winning the argument. While the criminal court system has its faults, at least outright lies are able to be challenged without having to file perjury charges.

  4. Alice Cheshire

    Any time a science group talks about “premature deaths”, it is clear evidence they are not a science group. It is statistically impossible to calculate premature deaths attributable to a specific cause, other than mass epidemics. Malaria is a concrete disease. Even then, science cannot definitively say how many “premature” deaths occurred, since the death rate for children is high in developing countries. Science only knows that malaria killed them and we can prevent malaria to a large degree, if allowed. When you start throwing in air pollution, chemicals, etc, it is impossible to actually show what constitutes a premature death. People die of asthma even when living in the cleanest of air. People die of cancer even when eating organic food (Paul McCartney’s first wife, for example). Science simply cannot make such predictions. If someone claims they have science that shows the number of “premature” deaths, run away. Statistical models are nothing more than cyber psychics when it comes to calculations concerning early deaths.

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