Editor’s note: This is a brief history of the SNRC Science Committee I scribbled down (I’m guessing) in mid-2004. (I have made small modifications to this text — the chief ones being the removal of now-dead links. I’m planning to “revitalize” some of those links, incidentally, as this blog progresses and republishes them.)
The Shoshone Natural Resources Coalition (SNRC) is the largest citizens group in Shoshone County focused on natural resources and environmental issues. SNRC is currently chaired by Robin Stanley; Fred Traxler is vice-chair.
According to testimony offered in August, 2000 by Kathy Zanetti, SNRC’s first chair, the group “…was initially conceived in 1999 by three Silver Valley school superintendents…” in order to increase both public awareness and public input into timber related issues in Shoshone County” — issues that carried significant consequences for school funding. (Incidentally, this testimony offers an illuminating early statement of SNRC concerns regarding EPA plans to expaned the Bunker Hill Superfund site to the entire Coeur d’Alene Basin, and it is well worth examining on that account.)
Shoshone County has many interfaces with federal and state agencies concerned with natural resources and environmental issues. SNRC’s platter of issues soon broadened to include others — including TMDL and other water quality-related concerns, forest management, and EPA’s Superfund activities and plans. “Therefore they [SNRC’s founders] decided,” said Zanetti, “that local citizens needed to take action, voice their opinions, and effectively influence natural resource decisions being made by federal agencies for the resources that are found in Shoshone County. Community leaders, the business community and citizens were called together, uniting the people of Shoshone County as a voice for responsible resource management.”
SNRC continues to this day as the go-to community institution for natural resources and environmental issues affecting Shoshone County.
Science Committee’s History
The Science Committee is a subcommittee of SNRC.
To the Science Summit. The committee was formed in early 2001, as SNRC members came to the conclusion that it would be good to mobilize local scientific expertise in order to study the (all-important) scientific aspects of EPA’s Superfund-expanding plans — as well as the scientific aspects of other natural resources issues.
The first task undertaken by the SC was a so-called “Science Summit” held in Wallace, at the Wallace Inn, on April 12, 2001.
The Summit had begun as an occasion for SNRC members to present questions to EPA (and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality) experts regarding their Superfund Science. EPA — to their credit — brought in a panel of scientists from around the nation to address our questions, including Robert Elias, Chris Weis, and Ian von Lindern. (Incidentally, the entire event was videotaped by SNRC and is available to NAS panel members, should any desire to see it.)
As the Science Committee prepared for this event a change happened. As we grew more familiar with the EPA science documents we changed our stance from one of merely posing questions about EPA science to, instead, offering more extensive critical reviews of it. The format of the event shifted from Q&A to something more like a session at a scientific conference. EPA presenters offered their presentations first, before the mid-event break, and then Science Committee presenters offered their presentations, after the break.
On the EPA side, Weis, von Lindern, and Elias offered presentations vouchsafing the IEUBK model’s performance and incorporated science.
On the Science Committee side, our five presenters examined EPA’s science and simulation model more critically. Ron Roizen’s presentation offered four points of weakness in the EPA’s draft human health risk assessment. Fred Brackebusch pointed out weaknesses in EPA’s use of key scientific concepts. Lee Haynes argued that EPA’s soil sampling methodology “high-graded” (or overestimated) soil lead concentration. Bill Calhoun recounted the economic and family-related hardships visited on the Silver Valley by EPA’s overlong stay here. Finally, Bob Hopper argued that environmental research should be sequestered from environmental remediation activities at EPA in order that the latter not bias the former.
The Summit was a very welcome event in that it allowed us to air our concerns and it demonstrated EPA’s willingness to provide scientific specialists (rather than merely the public relations specialists we had dealt with heretofore).
Yet the event was frustrating and disappointing for us in other respects. The format of the occasion left little time for sustained exchange. For example, the challenge we raised regarding the “unfalsifiability” of EPA’s model-driven approach to blood lead estimation was left hanging in the air as the event ended. It appeared to us at the time — and later events would prove it true — that EPA and DEQ had viewed the Summit as a one-way (them-to-us) didactic occasion, with little tangible interest in learning going in the other direction (us-to-them).
Between the Science Summit and Our Picketting of an EPA Community Meeting. Our sense of EPA’s intractability and its indifference to our scientific criticisms was soon confirmed by subsequent events.
In April, after the Summit, EPA published a progress report on its Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund project that persisted in calling the human health “problem” its top priority and, moreover, gave no inclination of attention to the objections and concerns we had raised at the Science Summit. The Science Committee responded by sending an “Open Letter to Robert Martin,” then-EPA national ombudsman, on April 27, 2001.
In the letter to Martin we objected, once again, to EPA’s blood lead estimation methods. “The EPA’s imputation of a child lead problem in our area,” we wrote, “is the product of a mining-area environmental stereotype and a virtually self-contained computer simulation model….” Our letter also documented a number of concerns stemming specifically from the recently held Science Summit, to wit:
We were informed that the published triggering standard for human health action (namely, 5% or more of the children in a population at or above 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood) was not in fact salient to the EPA’s decision making process in this area — despite that standard’s repeated assertion in the EPA’s draft Human Health Risk Assessment.
We were informed that the EPA’s remediation of blood lead risk was aimed at “future generations” of our area’s children, though no explanation has been offered as to how future generations of children may be more at risk than the present generation — about whom, we repeat, no credible evidence has been offered suggesting exceedance of the EPA’s stated “5%+ at 10µg/dL+” standard.
According to our reading of the just-released EPA Progress Report, our systematic critique of EPA science relating to (a) sampling and data collection, (b) bioavailability, and (c) population estimates has played no part in the ineluctable and single-minded development of the EPA’s action plan for our area.
June, 2001 saw the publication of the final version of EPA’s Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA). Therein we could see firsthand that EPA had ignored our comments at the Summit, had ignored our comments specifically submitted in the HHRA‘s notice and comment period, and, at best, had paid lip-service to our inputs. (So interested were we in EPA’s receptivity to our comments that we susequently constructed a page-by-page variorum of the HHRA’s key section, Section 6, in order to examine in detail where changes in wording or analysis had been introduced between the HHRA’s draft-for-comment and its final version.)
In mid-June, SNRC unanimously passed a resolution calling for EPA to hold-up on its human health plan until the existence of a significant blood lead problem could be scientifically demonstrated.
In mid-July, the Science Committee received a response from IDEQ to issues left hanging by the Science Summit in April. On July 25th, virtually the entire Science Committee’s membership traveled to Boise for a special meeting with the Governor’s Task Force on Human Health. Our objective in this meeting was to further illuminate our concerns with both the Science Summit and DEQ’s recent response. It was a long and heated occasion, characterized once again by a dogged intractability by the governor’s staff, IDEQ, and EPA personnel present. Fred Brackebusch, of the Science Committee, presented a lengthy account of Science Committee concerns, which account offered his own concerns and also drew from text suggested by members of the committee (Brackebusch also would later pen a brief overview of “highlights” of the meeting). Individual members of the Science Committee also took the occasion to offer their perspectives.
It is notable that Ian von Lindern was present at this meeting — he, a principal architect (we believe) in the HHRA’s construction. Dr. von Lindern made only a single contribution to the meeting — in which he offered that he had had only one year to complete the HHRA assignment. Our frustration with this event had several foci. One was DEQ’s/EPA’s citation of 17 articles ostensibly in support of the IEUBK model — among which several, we know, were in fact critical of that model. That observation, in turn, became the subject of an op-ed by Ron Roizen published in the Shoshone News-Press on citation practices, which appeared on August 14, 2001. This op-ed would be the first of more than 20 susequent op-eds offered by the Science Committee in relation to EPA Superfund-related science and policy.
Mid-August was significant for this history in another way. The Science Committee had not only conducted its own series of meetings with EPA, DEQ, and the State. Science Committee members had also, on an individual basis, attended other community meetings including EPA’s so-called “consensus process” meetings aimed at tilting public sentiment in favor of its Superfund plan. August 14, 2001, was the occasion another in EPA’s series of such community meetings, held at the Wallace Inn. By now, however, the Science Committee had reluctantly come to the consensus conclusion that EPA’s gatherings were not designed for two-way but merely for one-way, them-to-us communication. For that reason, the Science Committee decided to picket this meeting and (politely) invite, via the half-dozen picket signs we prepared, the public to boycott the event. We issued a brief statement explaining our action.
Smuggler’s Impact. The August picketing experience was probably a watershed event in the SC’s struggle respecting EPA’s Superfund-expanding plan. Having made the effort we had made, and seeing no tangible effect result from it, we began to turn our attentions elsewhere. Although we continued to monitor and comment upon EPA’s ineluctable progress toward the issuance of its Record of Decision or ROD, we also grew resigned to the fact that EPA was not going to divert its course and that, in the end, we were going to need to find another forum for airing our scientific concerns.
More than a little hope had been lodged in the EPA national ombudsman office and Robert Martin, the officeholder. The 9/11 tragedy in due course attracted much of Martin’s office’s attention. Before long, moreover, Martin and his office became embroiled in a fight for survival inside the EPA bureaucracy. Some Science Committee members did what they could to lend support to Martin and his stalwart assistant, Hugh Kaufman, but the obmbudsman office’s capacity to deliver much assistance to our own cause was severly constrained by the controversies that engulfed it.
Meantime, however, we had discovered the important story connected with the Smuggler Mountain Superfund site in Aspen, Colorado. The Smuggler story’s impact on the Science Committee would be difficult to underestimate. Here was a story where local residents, with the help of a determined and patient county health official, had managed to empanel a neutral and authoritative group of scientists to review EPA’s soil-to-blood-lead science — and won! (See, e.g., Willard Chappell’s useful and brief account of the Smuggler story.) Smuggler’s lesson for us was clear: we would have to turn to some other forum, and not EPA, for a fair hearing of our scientific objections and concerns.
Our initial contacts with Smuggler consisted of long telephone conversations with Patti Clapper (citizen activist, nurse, and Smuggler resident) and Tom Dunlop (the county’s lead public health official). Before long, we received a copy of the final report of the Smuggler Technical Committee (which is available in the binder of materials you should have received from Karl Gustavson). Reading the Smuggler report’s dispassionate and sensible prose and analysis renewed our hope for a reasonable outcome for the Coeur d’Alene Basin. The report also shed new light on scientific issues EPA had raised vis-a-vis our own site.
The search for a new forum and a new authoritative body for the review of EPA’s science commenced almost immediately. There were disappointments in this search — as, for example, when the University of Idaho (Moscow) administration declined our invitation to create a panel — but in the end our Idaho congressionals saved the day. Rep. Butch Otter and Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, along with southern Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson brought our case to the attentions of the National Academy of Sciences. A “Bill of Scientific Charges” that had been prepared as a final, pre-ROD appeal to Idaho’s governor, Dirk Kempthorne, was in turn sent to the NAS along with other supporting documentation. Despite signs of resistance from EPA and Washinton State’s U.S. Senators, the appropriation bill for this NAS panel ultimately won approval.
For us, it was a day of jubilation!
First Two Months of 2002. January and February of 2002 were intensely active times, chiefly because the comment period for the ROD closed on February 26, 2002. Despite all our experience to the contrary, SNRC and the Science Committee once again mounted a significant effort both to continue the examination of EPA science and to submit new — and it was hoped — stronger comments to EPA.
A half-dozen op-eds were published over these two months dealing with a number of aspects of EPA science and policy. Meantime, SNRC and the Science Committee members addressed the question of how to encourage Shoshone County’s citizens to offer comments on EPA’s Proposed Plan, the precursor to the ROD, by the end of the comment period. To that end, we devised a simple questionnaire comprising thirteen statements to which respondents responded using a “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” five-point scale. The questionnaire was published as a full page in the Shoshone News-Press, our county’s chief newspaper, in mid-February. (Incidentally, one of its items was: “I support the carrying out of a review of EPA Basin science by the National Academy of Sciences.”)
In order to ensure the credibility of the responding sample, the questionnaire provided Region 10’s address and respondents were instructed to post their completed form directly to EPA there. It would not be until six months later, when the ROD was published in September, that we would learn the News-Press readership’s responses to our survey.
Meantime, one Science Committee member, Ron Roizen, was hired conjointly by Shoshone County and the mayors of Wallace, Mullan, and Osburn as a consultant vis-a-vis EPA Superfund science and policy, employing funds made available to local governments by an EPA grant. Three applicants applied for this position. (It may be mentioned in passing that Roizen was by this time well known to EPA as a Science Committee member and a critic of EPA science. Hence, the EPA is to be commended for neither blocking Roizen’s appointment nor interferring with his work in any way.)
One of Roizen’s assignments was to assemble a collection of materials to be submitted in connection with Shoshone County’s and the three cities’ comment on the EPA’s Proposed Plan and forthcoming ROD. Along with comments written by Shoshone County’s Commissioners and municipal resolutions passed by Wallace’s and Mullan’s City Councils, this “collection” included a summary commentary written by Roizen as well as 28 tabbed appendices comprising articles and documents authored by Science Committee members, papers from the scientific literature, the Shoshone Lead Health Study of the mid-1970s, the full report of the Smuggler Technical Advisory Committee, and a copy of the December 1998 (Suppl. 6) issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, half of which was devoted to papers on estimating blood lead levels via predictive models.
(Interestingly, the EPA did not regard the appendices as “comments” and did not respond to their content in the ROD’s “responses to comments” section — so, for example, an article by Casteel et al. (abstract) reporting very high variability in lead relative bioavailability (from 3% to 86%) across twenty sampling sites, goes unmentioned in the ROD’s main text and comments section. This small fact illuminates, we believe, EPA’s essentially bureaucratic, rather than scientific, mindset and disposition toward information. A scientific mindset would not have turned a blind eye to the materials offered in the appendices, we believe.)
Both individually and collectively, members of SNRC and the Science Committee, as well as many citizens of Shoshone County, composed comments for submission on the Proposed Plan and ROD. The fruits of these labors are evidence in the more-than-3,000 comments available in the CD accompanying the published ROD.
Once the February 26th passed, the Science Committee and the Shoshone County community held its breath in anticipation of whether the ROD would take our comments seriously — even though few, by that time, held out much hope for genuine responsiveness and plan-changing from EPA.
After the Closure of EPA’s Comment Period for the ROD. The closure of the ROD’s comment period was something of a watershed in the Science Committee’s history. The big push to create and submit comments was over, and, after a temporary lull, the Science Committee turned to new focuses. Not all of the Science Committee’s activities were directed at EPA and their Superfund enterprise, of course. Within the Superfund orbit, however, three new focuses might be noted: (1) we monitored, with interest, the emergence of the new Basin Environmental Improvement Commission (BEIC), which institution took form even before the ROD was published in September, 2002; (2) we continued to expand our knowledge of scientific topics raised by the Superfund enterprise; and (3) we began to look toward the anticipated commencement of the National Academy of Sciences study. Meantime, a number of newsworthy events also engaged our attention and action, which may also be noted here.
Regarding the new Basin Environmental Improvement Commission, the Science Committee engaged this flegling institution in a variety of ways. Two of our members became active participants in the BEIC’s activities — Noel Logar in the Citizens Coordinating Committee (CCC) and Bill Rust in the Technical Leadership Group (TLG) and, later, as technical consultant to county commissioners on the BEIC as well. (Ruth Spencer, Kathy Zanetti, and Connie Fudge of SNRC also served as CCC members.) Rust and Logar kept the Science Committee abreast of the BEIC’s activities. We also chronicled and critiqued the BEIC’s formative months in a series of op-eds. There was not much good news in the emergence of this new institution. The mission the seven new commissioners embraced — including the three county commissioner members drawn from Shoshone, Kootenai, and Benewah Counties — focused on the ROD’s implementation and not on the troubled science underlying the ROD. From time to time the Science Committee offered suggestions or proposals to the BEIC, none of which was adopted. With exception of Rust and Logar, the Science Committee’s role remained chiefly observational and, as appropriate, critical as well.
The learning curve was steep for the Science Committee over eighteen months from the group’s beginnings to the middle of 2002. By making use of the World Wide Web and email, we were able to explore a number of literatures and, in a few cases, develop new directions of interest within the Science Committee. Some examples of this development merit mention.
We have already mentioned of Smuggler Mountain’s experience and the impact it had on us. A similarly important event was the discovery of Dr. Edgar Schoen’s papers and perspective on childhood blood lead — e.g., (Schoen, 1999). Schoen argued that the continuing medical alarm surrounding U.S. blood lead levels refected a misallocation of medicoscientific effort and attention springing from safeguards against scientific misconduct that were presently too weak. Truth be told, Schoen’s sensibility matched our own, but, and at the same time, we knew that our committee was not in a position to resolve the debate between Schoen’s and Dr. Herbert Needleman’s sides of the scientific aisle. What were were in a position to conclude however, was that papers such as Schoen’s (and more than a few others we unearthed as we investigated further) illuminated that key scientific assertions and claims EPA had offered to our community as established scientific certainties were instead new and contested areas of lead-health science. EPA, in effect, was giving us only a part of the scientific debate — the part that fit their remediation agenda.
In a different vein, we discovered and read with interest Peter Samuel’s book, Lead Astray: Inside and EPA Superfund Disaster (2002). Samuel’s book broadened our horizons beyond our own site’s experience and Smuggler’s. His accounts of numerous communities’ experiences with problematic lead health claims by EPA struck many resonant chores with our own on-going history.
2003 to the Present. We learned in January, 2003 that the funding for the NAS panel that would study the Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund sites ROD and remediation plan had been approved by the U.S. Congress. Although the actual commitment of the study’s funds by the EPA would not happen for some time thereafter, the news of Congress’s action had an important effect on Science Committee thinking and actions. Henceforth, we knew, a new forum was going to get a look at EPA’s science and conduct in the Coeur d’Alene Basin.
This fact harbored a couple of implications for us. For one, it meant that we no longer needed to press our arguments with an unresponsive EPA; we now had a new and more promising forum to go to. For another, we could therefore switch gears, relax a little, and shift to a monitoring role vis-a-vis EPA, DEQ, and the new institution in the region, the Basin Environmental Improvement Commission. Of course, we also began contemplating what sorts of presentations and other materials we might offer the NAS panel.
Early in 2002, some Science Committee prepared comments on the first draft of the “Addendum to the Lake Management Plan” circulated by its joint authors, IDEQ and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. In February, we watched with interest when a Congressional Research Service report on the BEIC brought news that this new institution had little actual authority beyond its obligation to implement the EPA’s ROD — thus also, incidentally, reducing our hopes that genuine community authority and inputs might be gained via the BEIC (see op-ed, 2/11/03). Later in February, we challenged the idea that EPA’s authority to implement the ROD has solid footing in law or federal regulations (see op-ed, 2/26/03).
In March, we expressed a measure of dismay that the BEIC would begin yard cleanups in Osburn, where both EPA’s IEUBK model and survey evidence suggested the blood lead exceedance rate was lowest in the Basin (see op-ed, 3/12/03). This singular act on the BEIC’s (i.e., EPA’s) part gave the lie, we believe, to the notion that a serious Basin blood lead problem was driving the yard remediation program. In April, we reviewed the Superfund status of Lake Coeur d’Alene, noting that more than a few hoops would have to be jumped through before delisting might occur (see op-ed, 04/16/03). In July, we expressed scepticism regarding the scientific and public health value of a late-arriving human health study focused on fish in Lake Coeur d’Alene (see op-ed, 7/20/03 & 7/27/03). In all these instances, our efforts took the form of monitoring and critiquing the post-ROD enterprises of EPA and DEQ as put into effect through the BEIC. And so our activities continued over the rest of 2003.
In January, 2004 we sent a representative to Washington, D.C. to attend the first public meeting of the NAS panel for the Coeur d’Alene Basin study.
It goes without saying that our April 15th, 2004 three-hour session with the NAS panel in Wallace represented a long-awaited event and a culmination of more than three years of effort on our parts and those of our U.S. congressionals. Incidentally, the NAS panel meeting happened three years and three days after the “Science Summit” meeting of April 12, 2001. Our journey has been a long and fruitful one.
We trust that the NAS panel’s journey will be also.