The magazine Politico has obtained leaked documents suggesting the Department of the Interior has altered the work of at least two agency scientists as it presses to finish the environmental reviews on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin spoke to the reporter who wrote the story for Politico, Adam Federman.
Can you summarize for us what your findings were?
I think it’s worth pointing out that the process has been rushed from the beginning. I mean, the department has made it clear that they want to have a lease sale before the end of this year… So the process has been expedited. And in the course of rushing this forward, the department has actually modified and altered some of the findings of its own scientists conducting the evaluation of impacts.
Can you provide an example?
Probably the most revealing example is a change made to a wildlife biologist’s assessment of potential impacts on polar bears… She had basically concluded that seismic surveys would have impacts on polar bears, or could potentially have impacts on bears. And after the assessment made its way up the chain – according to emails we obtained, it underwent solicitor and state office review – her conclusions were changed to say the opposite, that impacts on bears would be “less than significant.” And, you know, she was not happy about that. And she voiced her concerns, and in very clear language, said that she did not agree with that conclusion.
As you know, there are likely to be lawsuits over all of this. Environmentalists are likely to sue. Is it weird to be reporting something that is so relevant to what someone is going to sue over?
Well, I felt that that was part of the reason why this story needed to come to light now. I mean, this was a critical decision for the state of Alaska, for the country. And the documents, I think, are an important part of that story. And before any sort of final decision is made, you know, the public has a right to sort of see how the department was handling the review process behind the scenes.
The polar bear assessment Federman spoke of was to evaluate the impact of a seismic survey in the refuge. The survey was postponed and the final environmental report hasn’t been published.
The Department of the Interior sent statements from agency officials saying the department did not suppress science and they’ve seen no attempts to do so.
Adam Federman’s story in Politico was produced with help from Type Investigations, a non-profit that supports investigative journalism.