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Context of 'December 13, 2006: USGS to Screen All Documents by Agency Scientists of a ‘Policy-Sensitive Nature’'

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Scientists who work for the US Geological Survey watch the World Trade Center towers collapse on their television sets. “We sat at home, watched that gray-white cloud roll over Lower Manhattan, and knew damned well that the dust was going to hurt a lot of people,” Gregg Swayze, a USGS geophysicist, will later tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I knew we had the best technology in the world to determine precisely what was in that dust.” (Schneider 2/10/2002) Swayze and other USGS scientists quickly get to work making arrangements to use USGS and NASA equipment to determine the composition of the dust clouds (see September 12, 2001).

US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists begin performing tests on the dust samples collected by USGS geophysicists, Gregg Swayze and Todd Hoefen, during the previous three days (see September 17, 2001-September 19, 2001-). Roger Clark (the astrophysicist who heads the AVIRIS program at USGS), Gregg Swayze, Todd Hoefen and Eric Livo (another USGS scientist) analyze samples in the Imaging Spectroscopy Lab and Gregory Meeker (head of the USGS’s microbeam laboratory) views samples with the scanning electron microscope and conducts energy dispersive spectroscopy. Other USGS scientists study the samples using X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence, as well as chemical analysis and chemical leach testing. Within hours, the results from the various tests indicate the presence of asbestos and an “alphabet soup of heavy metals.” Each of the different techniques used to determine the chemical components of the dust “back each other up,” Swayze later explains to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Some techniques can see more than others, and we were throwing in every technique we had in house,” he says. Tests revealed the dust to be extremely alkaline with a pH of 12.1 (out of 14). (Schneider 2/10/2002) and that some of it was as caustic as liquid drain cleaner. (Schneider 2/10/2002) “We were startled at the pH level we were finding,” Swayze adds. “We knew that the cement dust was caustic, but we were getting pH readings of 12 and higher. It was obvious that precautions had to be taken to protect the workers and people returning to their homes from the dust.” Sam Vance, an environmental scientist with the EPA, sends the results to officials at the EPA, the New York health department and US Public Health Service. (Schneider 2/10/2002)

The Bush administration imposes what reporter and author Charlie Savage will later call “unprecedented controls” on scientists working with the US Geological Survey (USGS), an agency that studies environmental issues such as global warming and endangered species. Now, USGS scientists must submit research papers and prepared speeches to White House officials for approval prior to dissemination. The rules also require the scientists to let the public affairs office know about “findings or data that may be especially newsworthy, have an impact on government policy, or contradict previous public understanding to ensure that proper officials are notified and that communication strategies are developed.” USGS scientists say that the restrictions mean that government officials are monitoring and censoring their work. “The explanation was that this was intended to ensure the highest possible quality research,” says Jim Estes, a marine biologist who has worked for USGS since the 1970s. “But to me it feels like they’re doing this to keep us under their thumbs.” (Savage 2007, pp. 106-107)

The US Geological Survey establishes new rules requiring the screening of all facts and interpretations by agency scientists. The rules say that the USGS’s communications office must be “alerted about information products containing high-visibility topics or topics of a policy-sensitive nature.” Such “products” include all public documents, even minor reports or prepared talks. P. Patrick Leahy, USGS’s head of geology and its acting director, insists the new requirements are being implemented to improve scientists’ accountability, maintain their neutrality, and “harmonize” the review process. Jim Estes, an internationally recognized marine biologist in the USGS field station at Santa Cruz, Calif, disagrees. “I feel as though we’ve got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do,” he says, adding that he thinks the motivation behind the new rules is “to keep us under their thumbs. It seems like they’re afraid of science. Our findings could be embarrassing to the administration.” (Heilprin 12/13/2006)


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