Bush administration ignores science in essential environmental, public health policies

If there were a three-strikes law against ignoring science in public policy making, the Bush administration would have several free passes to prison.

But unfortunately, there is no such law, and President George W. Bush and his gang continue to rob the public of reasonable measures designed to protect public health, to preserve our oceans and to safeguard our economy for future generations.

And unless we demand more accountability, we will be stuck with a lifetime sentence of trying to clean up the mess being left behind.

Strike 1: Mercury pollution, food contamination
Power plants and oil refineries, among other sources, release large amounts of mercury into the air, which then settle into water and contaminate the fish we eat, leading to health problems.

While considering new rules to warn pregnant women and children to reduce their consumption of poisonous mercury-laden seafood such as swordfish and tuna, the Bush administration ignored reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and National Research Council that mercury contamination is a serious threat. The new rules actually recommend that women and children eat albacore tuna at levels exceeding safe levels of exposure.

Nearly simultaneously, evidence surfaced that the Bush administration has been ignoring its own atmospheric scientists in issuing new rules that would allow more mercury to be released into air through coal-burning smokestacks across the nation. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, pointed out that because of the illnesses caused by air pollution, the new rules place a growing burden on our health-care system and reduce employee productivity.

Strike 2: Salmon recovery
The Bush administration ignored its own appointed scientists on salmon recovery by counting hatchery-raised fish and endangered wild salmon as identical, despite overwhelming evidence that hatchery fish contribute to the demise of the wild species. Six experts, appointed by the federal fisheries service, recently declared that counting hatchery fish with wild salmon “could have devastating consequences.” Ironically, wild salmon are one of the healthiest fish to eat, being low in mercury and high in important fish oils.

Strike 3: Longline fishing, sea turtles
While 400 of the world’s leading scientists have called on the United Nations to implement a moratorium on industrial longline fishing in the Pacific to protect ocean wildlife from being driven to extinction by this industrial fishing method, the Bush administration just re-opened the sea turtle-killing U.S. swordfish longline fishing industry in the Western Pacific – despite scientific evidence that Pacific leatherbacks are nearing extinction because of the billions of hooks deployed by longliners each year.

However, in this case, the administration claimed to have science on its side.

Unfortunately, the Bush gang used a preliminary, unpublished study in another ocean basin that suggests certain hook/bait combinations increase swordfish catch while reducing turtle catch. In the process, they ignored similar studies with contradictory results. Even if the turtle-reduction methods work, scientists agree they don’t reduce turtle kills to levels low enough to allow the endangered turtles to recover. This says nothing for the other species that are caught on the 2.7 million hooks deployed daily in the Pacific Ocean.

This decision also comes on the heels of a just-released Duke University study showing, on average, 60 percent of Pacific leatherbacks will be caught on a longline hook every year. Meanwhile, despite evidence that the swordfish population is itself depleted, Bush’s fisheries agency has invested millions of taxpayer dollars and is now promoting more effective ways to catch swordfish.

Of course, swordfish have the highest mercury content of any other seafood, so more swordfish mean more human mercury poisoning.

This alarming trend of ignoring science isn’t limited to ocean and fisheries policies. Downgrading rules to ensure clean water, clean air and other environmental and public health issues, such as the recent approval of dangerous anti-depressant drugs for children, are all becoming common news.

I am sure Galileo, Newton and Einstein are rolling over in their graves. But even if they were alive, they as scientists would be ignored, too. It’s up to the public to contact the White House and demand that policy be driven by science.

Todd Steiner is a biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, an environmental organization based in Marin County, California. He welcomes comments at [email protected]