Ignoring science at the Forest Service

March 10, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

When Berry Energy proposed a gas drilling and pipeline project in the Fernow Experimental Forest, U.S. Forest Service scientists reviewed the project and found lots of problems. They worried it would harm endangered bats. They were concerned about toxic runoff and long-term damage to forest ecology.

What happened?

Agency bosses ignored them, allowing a drilling project that ended up causing toxic pollution that killed trees and other vegetation, according to a new report from the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

According to PEER, which works with government agency employees and in this case obtained hundreds of Forest Service documents under the Freedom of Information Act here’s a summary of problems in the Fernow situation:

–  Agency officials decided to evade Endangered Species Act consultation rules, despite reports that the drilling may be harming Big Springs Cave, one of the largest winter homes of the endangered Indiana bat on public land;

–  Forest Service managers refused to address ponds of toxic drill pit fluids that threatened wildlife and killed vegetation.

— Other Forest Service managers blocked requests from agency scientists for the Office of General Counsel to sort through complex legal issues, instead of going along with the gas company request.

Now, PEER has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General (the Forest Service is part of USDA) to investigate the situation and figure out why Monongahela National Forest officials ignored their own agency’s experts.

“The Monongahela offers a textbook example of how drilling should not be done on a national forest,” said PEER Director Jeff Ruch. “Unless the Inspector General intervenes, we will see more train-wrecks like what occurred on the Monongahela when the price of natural gas begins to rise again.”

This would hardly be the first time the Bush administration put politics ahead of science. It’s hard to know where to start in compiling a list of such abuses, but this Web site from the Union of Concerned Scientists is a helpful one, as is this piece from The Nation by Robert Kennedy Jr.

I’m going to write more about the Fernow situation for tomorrow’s print edition of the Gazette. The story will be posted on our Web site as well, so check back for it.

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