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09.08.10

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Phaedra
BLOWBACK? A high-profile scientist who contradicted the Schwarzenegger administration on the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide has lost his place on a key panel.

Scientific Shakeup

Environmental panelists' abrupt dismissal raises questions

By Curtis Cartier


MOST CALIFORNIANS have probably never heard of the Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants. Of the countless boards of scientists and researchers in state government and academia, the SRP is neither the most powerful nor the most glamorous. Its members—decorated University of California researchers all—are, nonetheless, tasked with checking the work of state-run environmental agencies like the Air Resources Board and the Department of Pesticide Regulations to determine what risk certain airborne industrial chemicals have of making people sick. An important job, most would agree. So when five of its nine members were abruptly dismissed from the panel last month—many with nothing more than a two-sentence "thanks for your service" letter—a lot more people started paying attention to the SRP and who's on it.

"It's very important and complicated work," says Paul Blanc, a UC-Berkeley professor of medicine and one of the panel's four remaining incumbent members. "This mass turnover is unprecedented."

Technically, none of the dismissed scientists were fired. Rather, their terms expired and the folks that normally make the appointments (Gov. Schwarzenegger, the California Environmental Protection Agency and Assembly Speaker John Pérez) didn't reappoint them. Though Blanc managed to keep his seat on the expert panel, the chairman of the group, UCLA toxicologist John Froines, wasn't so lucky.

Santa Cruzans might remember Froines from such regulatory debacles as the June decision by the Department of Pesticide Regulations to ignore its own staff of scientists and a peer review panel led by Froines when setting legal exposure limits of farmworkers to the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide. The department set the limit at more than 100 times what had been recommended.

Froines also presided over the SRP's 2002 assessment of the herbicide metam sodium, which called for strict regulations. And those with longer memories may remember Froines as an original member of the so-called "Chicago Seven," a group of radicals that included famed "Yippie" activist Abbie Hoffman, and, in 1969, was charged and later acquitted of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (Froines was charged with making an incendiary device).

In emails to Santa Cruz Weekly, Froines doesn't offer much opinion on his ouster, instead praising the integrity of the panel itself, writing: "We maintained our commitment to doing the best science possible and we never wavered from that. That is why we were trusted although not always agreed with."

Froines may not be claiming that outside industrial interests forced the shakeup on the SRP, but the outside interests themselves are happy to do so. The Pacific Legal Foundation, an ultraconservative, anti-regulation law firm, is claiming the scalps of the five dismissed panel members, citing its longstanding lawsuit that argued the members should adhere to their three-year terms and not be repeatedly reappointed, as many members had been—none more than Froines, who's served since 1986.

"We were concerned that many of these folks had been serving on the panel for decades," says Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Damien Schiff. "We felt it was essential going forward that it be staffed by new folks that were more conscious of the economical impact of their decisions."

Meanwhile, a staffer with Speaker Pérez is hinting that it's all just been a procedural misunderstanding between the Speaker and University of California President Mark Yudof, who is responsible for coming up with a list of qualified applicants that the appointing bodies can choose from. According to an aide for Pérez, when Yudof's office sent over the list of potential appointees, Froines and other incumbents weren't on it, leading Perez and other appointing powers to believe the excluded scientists were ineligible. UC Provost Lawrence Pitts, however, claims that incumbent SRP members are automatically eligible for reappointment and that Pérez and other appointing bodies could have reappointed them to their hearts' content. The Pérez aide swears he's not simply trying to pass the blame.

"We wanted Froines on there. We still want him on there," the spokesman says, seemingly flabbergasted at the oversight. "I gotta call our legal team and see what's going on."

What this all means for San Cruzans and Californians as a whole has less to do with the departing SRP members than it does with the incoming ones. And, for the most part, the incoming scientists have been praised by their predecessors. Froines, who's being replaced by UC-Irvine toxicologist Michael Kleinman, says he's "not sure who all the new members are. However, I believe the ones I know are fine scientists."

But whether the new group will be cohesive enough to tackle its first hearing is still in question by panel members like Blanc. "The panel's interest has always been public health," says Blanc. "It's not that I have doubts about the qualifications of the people who may be coming on, it's rather that this will definitely slow any work by the committee."

Bay Area environmental groups have closely watched the panel shakeup, as Froines is seen largely as a hero in the fight against the use of methyl iodide and other toxic chemicals. Paul Towers, director of Sacramento-based Pesticide Watch Education Fund, says he'll be pushing the California EPA to step in and reappoint Froines.

"We believe Dr. Froines and other members brought a wealth of experience and served the panel well over the years," says Towers. "We can only suspect that conservative legal groups have forced a decision that is contrary to good science."


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