Toxic sites, endangered species, nuclear radiation, cancer clusters: There is no shortage of controversial scientific issues in New Jersey.
Members of a new state advisory board say they hope to give the public more faith in environmental decisions at a time when people are growing more skeptical about science. But some environmentalists claim that with business officials of regulated industries sitting on the board, the panel could be manipulated to undermine the state Office of Science and years of hard-won environmental regulations.
The state Department of Environmental Protection recently appointed 16 academics, private industry experts, doctors and scientists to the panel.
"We have a diverse collection of disciplines we are poised to deal with," said Chairwoman Judith Weis, a biology professor at Rutgers University who has studied marine pollution for decades.
Science advisory boards are common in government. The Environmental Protection Agency has one. So does the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Weis said people have become more distrustful about science, sometimes because nonscientists have a louder voice when it comes to factious issues such as climate change.
"I suppose the public has. People like Rush Limbaugh have better PR skills than the scientific community. Most scientists would prefer just to do their own research and not get involved in the public arena," she said.
The DEP regulates a vast spectrum of issues from nuclear energy to toxic pollution to hunting and fishing. Its staff scientists prepare and interpret the data eventually used to restrict development and industry in New Jersey.
Critics often question the state's scientific rationale behind these regulations, from curbing retail construction to protecting pine snakes in Ocean County or requiring wider construction buffers along streams.
"The DEP has had the ability to cherry-pick scientific data and use the most conservative standards as they see fit," said David Brogan, vice president for environmental policy at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "Having more people with scientific backgrounds gathering data and using other resources will only help to get a fair and balanced approach to rulemaking."
The New Jersey Builders Association agrees.
"Every time we participate in these rulemaking processes, we ask it be backed up by science," said Elizabeth George-Cheniara, who handles environmental affairs for the organization. "Whatever information can give credibility to the process is key."
New Jersey paradoxically has some of the strictest air- and water-pollution standards in the country while at the same time averages three polluted sites per square mile.
Jeff Tittel, spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, took issue with the appointment of industry leaders to the board. Its members include DuPont microbiologist John Gannon and several industry consultants. He said politicians with an agenda could use the panel to erode environmental protections.
"The New Jersey DEP has for the last 30 years had the best division of science in the country. They have standards to protect drinking water, clean up contaminated sites. They've done great work," he said. "The only science you'll get here is political science."
DuPont's Gannon said the board has a broad membership and strict guidelines about conflicts of interest to prevent industry or political bias. For example, he would abstain from issues that directly affect his business, he said.
In their board applications, several Rutgers professors recognized potential conflicts, namely that their institution or colleagues receive DEP grants for their research.
"I think it's an honor to serve on it," Gannon said. "I don't see any problem with DEP's science. Our role is to vet the science and see what we view as accurate or more current."
Set the agenda
Having a second set of eyes examine particularly controversial findings can only help, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said.
"We have people on the board with a wealth of experience in various fields," he said.
And since the board is composed of unpaid volunteers, this second opinion comes free of charge, Ragonese said.
"At a time when budgets are tight, being able to take advantage of the knowledge of professionals is a great asset to the state," he said. "They're on call for any issue that comes up."
The DEP created the board more than a year ago and spent a year soliciting nominations and appointing members. The board has not met.
"This is just good preventive medicine to get that second opinion," said member Mark Robson, a toxicologist and dean of Agricultural and Urban Programs at Rutgers University.
"I don't know if we're going to start with air, water, soil or food," Robson said. "My impression is that what will be on the table is the science behind the entire suite of things under the DEP's purview. I would hope it convenes soon. Otherwise, it's one of those hundreds of state committees that are formed that never meet."
He is not the only one eager to begin. Board member Emile DeVito, director of science for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said he is considering calling his own meeting of the ecological subcommittee he chairs.
DeVito, a trustee for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, is studying rare plants in the Pine Barrens of Ocean County this month.
"I would like to bring questions to the table rather than allow the political agenda bring issues to the table," he said.
"One key issue I see on the horizon is if people will focus on solar power, what habitats and land areas do we cover up? There are already 5 square miles of applications to cover up farms with solar panels," DeVito said. "It would be nice if we could put them in built environments instead of sacrificing natural areas or farms."
But the group could also study invasive species or how to stem the growing ecological impacts of white-tailed deer.
DeVito said the board's role is to validate conclusions in the face of dissenting opinion from special interests that make their own unsubstantiated scientific claims.
"That's become enormous. The public can't tell the difference between science and a smokescreen," he said. "The advisory board can sift out what's real science."
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