Park misused sound data in oyster EIS

03/29/2012

Data indicating high levels of sound pollution from equipment at Drakes Bay Oyster Company was knowingly misrepresented by the National Park Service in its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the company, according to previous drafts of the document and new sound recordings taken at the farm.

Point Reyes National Seashore officials used sound data from a federal highway construction guide and a 16-year-old report on New Jersey police jet skis to intensify the alleged impact of the farm on wildlife, misleading peer reviewers and the public in the assumption that the measurements came from onsite machinery.

Physical recordings taken last winter indicate that the farm’s actual sound emissions are as much as 825 times less than indicated in the draft.

The discovery of the misrepresentation prompted local biologist Dr. Corey Goodman this week to file charges of scientific misconduct on the part of park service employees.

In a letter sent Monday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Goodman wrote that park service officials violated the department’s scientific integrity policy. He called for an immediate investigation and prompt withdrawal of the draft EIS, as well as the retraction of a privately contracted peer-review of the EIS released last week.

A spokesman for Interior said Monday that the department was reviewing the charges.

The draft EIS states that the oyster farm’s two motorboats emit 71 decibels of sound measured from 50 feet away—the New Jersey report measured from two feet away—and that its forklift, pneumatic drills and oyster tumbler emit 79, 85 and 79 decibels, respectively, from the same distance. According to the draft, sound produced in excess of 60 decibels at 50 feet is “usually inappropriate or
excessive.”

But those figures appear to be grossly inaccurate. A review commissioned by farm owner Kevin Lunny in November found that his boats actually emit between 58 and 60.1 decibels of sound, or 12 to 19 times less noise than stated in the draft EIS. In other words, it would take 12 to 19 boats of equal power to produce 71 decibels.

The forklift’s actual emissions are between 64 and 65 decibels, or 25 times less noise than stated in the draft EIS; the pneumatic drills are 70 decibels, or 29 times less; and the tumbler produces 50 decibels—or 825 times less.

“If [the park service] and [Vanasse Hangen Brustlin] employees would falsify the soundscape data, then the public cannot trust anything else they have produced,” Goodman wrote, referring to the firm hired to help write the EIS. “You must assume that the entire document is biased and prejudiced, and thus reject it.”

Last week the Interior Department released a peer review of the draft EIS that, despite noting several of the document’s flaws—including inappropriately sourced or unsupported claims—effectively granted the 430-page document a clean bill of health. In the review, Dr. Christopher Clark, an acoustic specialist from Cornell University, wrote that he found “ample” evidence that the farm’s equipment noticeably inhibits “the visitor experience and the seashore’s wildlife.”

Clark since stated that he believed the data had been measured directly from the oyster farm.

Goodman said he obtained an earlier, unpublished draft of the EIS that classified the sound readings as “estimated,” rather than “representative”—as they were described in the public version. The unpublished draft also cited the New Jersey report and the highway construction guide in full, while the published version referred to them only as “Noise Unlimited, Inc, 1995” and “FHWA 2006.”

“The legend and labeling of [sound data] were intentionally revised between the June non-public version of the [draft] EIS and the September public version in such a way as to deceive the public, elected officials, and peer-reviewers,” Goodman wrote.

A cross-reference of the draft EIS’s decibel readings with those in the 2006 highway guide left Goodman puzzled. According to the guide, Lunny’s oyster tumbler, which is powered by a 12-volt battery, produced the same amount of noise as a front-end loader, rivet buster and concrete mixing truck.

Lunny had long questioned the numbers as well, partly because he never recalled any park service scientists or representatives visiting the farm to take acoustic measurements. “When I saw 79 dBA for the oyster tumbler, I knew something was off.” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’”

In an attachment to his letter to Salazar, Goodman likened the latest transgression to a 2007 claim made by seashore officials that oyster feces from the farm were clogging the estero and harming eelgrass. The statement was linked to a study from Japan published in 1955, and there was no data from the oyster farm to support it. “Both times [the park service] claimed the data were from Drakes Estero,” he wrote. “Some might call this a repeated pattern of deception.”