Greens vs. Science: Ecology Doesn't Want Improved Data on Phosphorous and Spokane River
In my book Eco-Fads, I argue that many politicians and policymakers actively oppose auditing their policies because the benefit of the policies isn't environmental improvement, it is the good feeling associated with publicly supporting the policy. I wrote:
Auditing the results of a policy serves only as a tool to point out the shortcomings of favored environmental approaches. Data that are not collected cannot be used to show whether elected officials made a mistake.
As a result, politicians and government agencies will actually oppose collecting new data that might show the policy isn't working even if the data will improve the policy's results.
A decision by the Department of Ecology regarding their policy to reduce phosphorous in the Spokane River might be the most recent example of this impulse. Ecology is concerned that phosphorous from runoff and other sources was causing algae blooms in the river. This is one reason that consumers in Spokane can't buy dish-washing detergent that contained phosphorous.
A study by a scientist at the University of Washington, however, found that phosphorous wasn't as significant a problem as Ecology believed. The study, whose costs were shared by Ecology and local dischargers, was to be followed up with a second round. No longer.
As the Spokesman-Review reports yesterday, "The Washington Department of Ecology has opted not to pay for additional research by a University of Washington professor whose earlier work suggested that not all of the phosphorus discharged into the Spokane River leads to rampant algae growth and poor water quality."
Michael Brett, the scientist who was to complete the study, says he knows the reason:
I think Ecology is aggressively trying to put the kibosh on the science. … Because the results are complicating their policy, they’re trying to make the science go away.
The dischargers who paid for half of the first study, and were prepared to pay for the follow up study, aren't happy either, telling the Spokesman-Review "He (Brett) has every right to be upset, and so do all the rest of us who participated in the funding of round one."
The Ecology representative argued the science hadn't advanced enough to make the new study worthwhile. As a result, the new study wouldn't be enough to make a change. He said "The science would need to be overwhelming for us to make that change." That, of course, raises the question as to whether the same standard was applied to instituting the rule in the first place.
The standard for creating new rules appears to be very low, but the standard of science required to remove needless and costly restrictions is much higher. Put simply, the governing factor is not the science, but the personal feelings and risk adversity of the regulator. The Ecology regulator in this case may not be intentionally preventing the creation of new science. There is a good argument to be made that spending money without new information is a waste -- especially so in a tough budget situation. That, however, does not mean what he "feels" is right is based on science alone and not on a personal, subjective judgement.
Of course Dr. Brett has an interest in receiving funding for the new study. It is revealing, however, that the dischargers are willing to pay for additional research. They, obviously, feel the new science will be useful.
This isn't the first time Ecology has decided that new science contradicting previous information was irrelevant when it came to policy making. When the Department's third assessment of the amount of polluted runoff reaching the Puget Sound was released, the amount of oil and grease reaching the Sound fell from a high of 120 million pounds a year to 23 million pounds.
Despite the change, the Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Partnership didn't change its policy recommendations. It had previously argued that the inaccurate Phase 1 data was used "as the basis for strategies and near-term actions included in the [PSP] Action Agenda..." When the much lower Phase 3 numbers were released, however, the strategies and near-term actions didn't change.
There is frequently a call to "follow the science" in environmental policy, which is appealing because it is important to base policy on sound science. Without good science to guide us, policymakers are simply making policy based on whim. What is less understood, however, is that regulators have wide latitude to decide what constitutes "good science," and such determinations can vary widely based solely on the personal values and risk tolerance of the regulator in charge.
Refusing to collect potentially inconvenient data is one strategy used by politicians and regulators that allows them to claim they are following the science while arguing there is no new data that would cause them to change their policy.