It’s the stupid system

by Rick Coates

Outrageous. Disheartening. But, unfortunately, no longer surprising. After fourteen years of involvement in government environmental review, my naiveté is dead. Still, it was not without concern that I received four calls in the last three months. Calls about corruption. From insiders.

The first call was from a young man who had hired on to a prestigious environmental consulting firm in San Francisco. His specialty was toxicology. He had just received his doctorate and still retained the fresh idealism of youth. He was assigned a task analyzing water issues related to a construction project to be built by a major oil company. His findings, which were to be included in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), turned up serious toxic pollution that might potentially delay or halt the project. His company had just asked him to alter his findings in order to protect their client, a company whose name virtually everyone on Earth would recognize. To his credit, he had resigned rather than falsely his data. Unfortunately, his firm had changed the results anyway and issued the report with his name on it. He was made to understand that if he complained, he would not get another job in the industry.

Least you think that this was unique, consider call number two from a scientific consultant who worked on a local conversion-of-timberland-to-grapes in Sonoma County. The consultant was pressured to conclude that there would be no significant damage to a particular watershed by the project. The evidence was clear. Flooding and erosion would increase, percolation to ground water would decrease. The wells of the neighbors would suffer. The salmon habitat in the creek was already degraded. Additional silt would destroy it. The scientist had resisted so another consultant was hired to do the job.

The third call was from a well respected scientist who told me a story of his graduate student days. He had worked on research for the National Forest Service while doing his doctoral work. His thesis advisor placed him in charge of an ongoing research project while he took several months off to work on another project for a private company. When the advisor returned, the results of the forestry research done by our hapless graduate student displeased him greatly. Apparently the results threatened the profits of the private company that the thesis advisor worked with. The graduate researcher was told to alter his findings or do without a doctoral degree. You will be happy to know that the doctoral candidate ultimately received his doctorate by appealing over the head of the advisor, but was prevented from publishing in the U.S. for many years. His advisor had positions on or connections with peer review boards of Journals in the field. Our hero is now much older and has over 50 peer-reviewed publications under his belt.

The fourth call came from an insider in a government agency charged with reviewing a local logging plan. He told me that his supervisor instructed him to get the plan approved that the review process was “taking too long and too many questions are being asked.” The project proponent had “too many friends in Washington and Sacramento that can hurt the agency.”

Before jumping to the conclusion that we just need to eliminate the unethical individuals in the system, consider the system itself. Private projects in California must undergo review in accord with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The responsibility for review is vested in State or local agencies. The California Departments of Forestry (CDF), Fish and Game, and Water Quality Control review logging and conversion plans. But these departments do not write up the actual plans. Project proponents pay a private Registered Professional Forester (RPF) or a forestry firm to write a logging plan. Because foresters and forestry firms compete with one another for this business, they are under financial pressure to cut corners and increase the cut any way they can. Those who don’t maximize profits for their clients soon loose out in the market place. Lax review and enforcement of the regulations by CDF encourages cheating.

The same arrangement is true of biology, geology and hydrology consulting firms working on EIRs or logging plans. Project proponents contract directly for the production of an EIR.

Section 21082.1 of CEQA requires that EIRs “be prepared directly by or under contract to” the government agencies doing the review. The agencies may then recoup the costs by charging the project proponents fees. But the Second District Court of Appeals in a stunning example of judicial activism ruled in the case Friends of La Vina v. County of Los Angeles that it was OK for project proponents to hire consultants directly so long as the agencies “review” their work and adopts it as their own.

Unfortunately, many of the agencies are so cozy with the industry which they regulate that they are disinterested in an objective review. CDF routinely accept the forester’s and consultant’s ridiculous assertions as “substantial evidence” without (and contrary to the requirements of CEQA) any data presented to back them. Without public involvement plans are virtually rubber stamped.

Until this dysfunctional relationship between the project proponents, their consultants and the agencies, changes we can expect that the foresters will continue to claim and CDF will continue to agree that disastrous logging plans will have “no significant environmental effects.”

Please write your California Senator and Assembly Member and ask that they sponsor legislation to change this insidious arrangement.