As plot thickens, IG likely to probe controversy over Calif. oyster farm

The Interior Department's inspector general appears likely to join the growing scrutiny over whether the National Park Service falsified data in an environmental review of a California oyster farm.

Scientific integrity officials at Interior -- which houses NPS -- are already reviewing allegations that officials purposely misled the public by using 17-year-old data from New Jersey police boats to represent sound levels at the farm. The numbers appeared in a draft environmental impact statement that NPS developed to help determine whether to renew the farm's lease in a national wilderness area (Greenwire, March 27).

But yesterday, scientist Corey Goodman submitted a formal complaint to Interior IG Mary Kendall, asserting that the Park Service "should not be involved with an investigation of itself." In recent weeks, he said, NPS Scientific Integrity Officer Gary Machlis restricted access to sound files from a microphone that was placed near the farm in 2009 and 2010. That data was used in a study referenced in the draft EIS.

Kris Kolesnik, Interior's associate inspector general for external affairs, would not comment directly on the complaint. But in such cases, he said, "typically we have a unit of investigators -- management and otherwise -- that vet the allegations." That unit determines whether an investigation is warranted, he said.

The case is one of the first to test Interior's new scientific integrity policy, which stipulates that investigations into scientific misconduct be handled by a Scientific and Scholarly Integrity Review Panel. The policy directs cases of fraud, waste and abuse to the IG.


In his letter yesterday to the IG, Goodman asserts that the oyster farm complaint "goes beyond scientific misconduct and involves fraud." He also references a letter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent last month that called the draft EIS "deceptive and potentially fraudulent" (E&ENews PM, March 29).

Kolesnik said the IG's office maintains constant communication with Interior's scientific integrity office. IG officials, he said, routinely take a look at scientific integrity complaints to establish whether they involve issues under the office's jurisdiction.

To Goodman -- who has repeatedly criticized NPS research on the farm -- an unbiased investigation hinges on whether the IG picks it up.

"I don't think this requires scientists to investigate, and I am really worried about having the Park Service investigate itself," he said. "We don't know who's involved."

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher declined to comment, citing the ongoing review of Goodman's complaint.

New allegations

In the latest complaint, Goodman layers on another allegation: The Park Service, he says, had access to firsthand sound data of the oyster farm's boats and chose not to use that data in the draft EIS.

In 2009 and 2010, the Department of Transportation -- in conjunction with NPS -- installed a microphone on a bluff overlooking Drakes Estero, where the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. operates. The data from that microphone were used to establish the ambient noise level cited in the draft EIS.

But the microphone also picked up the sound of the oyster farm's motorboats, according to Goodman. Once a week, the farm's boats rode through a channel about 250 feet from the microphone -- and the sound of their motors shows up in the sound data.

However, the boats operating almost 3,000 feet away aren't picked up by the microphone. That directly contradicts the draft EIS, which contends that the boats can be heard 1.3 miles, or 6,800 feet, away.

The draft EIS briefly mentions the possibility of the microphone picking up noises from the oyster farm but notes that "steep topography such as bluffs around some of Drakes Estero can block sound transmission."

That is a claim Goodman rejects; the microphone, he says, had a straight shot. It was also placed near a camera that NPS installed to capture photos of potential disturbances to harbor seals and their pups. A report from Interior's solicitor's office later chastised a scientist for not disclosing those photos, after finding no proof that the farm's boat's disturbed the seals.

Instead of using the firsthand data from the microphone, NPS officials extrapolated the sound levels of the farm's boats (and other equipment) from the 1995 New Jersey study and a 2006 "Construction Noise Users Guide" from the Federal Highway Administration. A table in the draft EIS appears to imply the data were collected at the farm; that table misled a scientist who reviewed the document as part of a peer review Interior commissioned.

Goodman comes to his conclusions using the spectrograms from the microphones, or images that visually show sounds. That information was provided by two scientists in NPS who helped Goodman interpret the data through email exchanges that lasted almost a week.

But on April 13, they stopped responding before handing over audio files Goodman requested. Goodman took his request to Machlis, the scientific integrity officer, three days later.

Machlis gave a boilerplate response: "I have received your emails and review each carefully as it comes in. We are following DOI policies on allegations of scientific misconduct."

A day later, NPS informed Goodman that he would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get the audio files because of their size. But Goodman points to the fact that he asked "how long or short a time period" he could request for the files; he was looking, he said, only for recordings of when the oyster farm's boats were running in Drakes Estero.

By not providing the audio files, Goodman says, NPS "hindered and restricted" his scientific analysis.

"The NPS change of behavior represents an inexplicable double standard," he writes in his letter to Kendall. "One week the NPS scientists were collegial and sharing data in accord with the DOI Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct and the scientific norm. The next week they went silent, contrary to the same Code, and finally told me I must file a FOIA request to obtain the relevant data, data I requested 18 days earlier."

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