Seashore suspected of fraud over noise data

04/26/2012

To an increasingly disturbing set of allegations against the National Park Service, local biologist Dr. Corey Goodman has added a new charge: fraud.

In its efforts to oust Drake’s Bay Oyster Company from a potential wilderness area in Point Reyes National Seashore, Goodman claims the park service distorted and falsified evidence of noise pollution supposedly produced by the 70-year-old farm and concealed relevant data that disproved its conclusions.

After reviewing hundreds of hours of sound data, Goodman discovered that the base level of ambient noise reported in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the farm was set at least ten decibels lower than was realistic. This led to a 30-fold exaggeration of the distance the sound of the oyster boats could travel—a distance far enough to disturb the harbor seals hauling out in Drakes Estero.

This week Goodman filed his fifth complaint against the park service in a letter sent to the Interior Department’s acting Inspector General, Mary Kendall, and science integrity officer, Ralph Morgernwreck, and the park service’s science integrity officer, Gary Machlis.

“Data and metrics were distorted, invented, falsely represented, overestimated, underestimated, and exaggerated, and the real data concealed, all with the result of showing that [Drake’s Bay Oyster Company] boats and equipment could be heard for miles, when in reality they could not,” he wrote.

Goodman’s complaint charges the park service with knowingly deceiving peer reviewers of the DEIS, and calls for a retraction of that document—which cost the park service $600,000 in commission charges alone—as well as an investigation of possible fraud.

The question of fraud was first raised last week in a letter sent to Secretary Ken Salazar by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who called the use of 17-year-old data from New Jersey jet skis as documentation of noise from oyster boat engines “incomprehensible” and “potentially fraudulent.”

Goodman emphasized that the park service “should not be involved with an investigation of itself,” raising the possibility of a second Inspector General investigation at the seashore. “False representations of data, concealment of data, and deception equals fraud,” Goodman said. “That is [the Inspector General’s] territory.”

A recent investigation by a field solicitor for the park service, Gavin Frost, fell short of a finding of scientific misconduct even as it determined that scientists at Point Reyes had allowed ideological agendas to influence their findings.

Goodman maintains that the park service has not only misled the public with unrelated and exaggerated sound data but also suppressed its own on-site research because it showed “little to no disturbance.” A microphone placed on a bluff overlooking the estero took sound measurements throughout the summer of 2009 to monitor the effects of aircraft noise as part of the development of an air tour management plan.

According to Goodman, the recordings provide substantial evidence of the real levels of noise pollution and their effect on local wildlife.

Goodman also said that his access to the sound data was repeatedly hindered in recent weeks by park service employees, including Machlis, who Goodman claims broke the Department of the Interior’s Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct by restricting access to already published and highly relevant data.

“It is difficult to examine this record of false representations and suppression of data without coming to the conclusion that these actions were knowingly undertaken,” he said.

Machlis said he was unable to comment.

Point Reyes National Seashore’s outreach coordinator for the DEIS, Melanie Gunn, said her agency is working hard to be transparent. “We’ve devoted extensive web pages to the unprecedented number of public comments [about the Drakes Estero debate],” all of which she said were available online through the park’s website.

Both she and seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said they were unable to comment on the new allegations filed by Goodman.

“The key thing to keep in mind,” Muldoon said, “is that there is a lot of passion and many people on all sides who care a lot about the issue. Our goal is to keep a civil tone and stay away from the politics of personal destruction.”