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LOIS HENRY: CARB can't ignore credibility problems

Credibility is power.

When you have it, it's like a rock in your fist. But despite its power, it can be as fragile as an eggshell -- handle it with care or it'll shatter into a gooey mess.

That's what I believe the California Air Resources Board members have on their hands as they bull forward with the diesel emissions rules they passed last December based on a health report written by CARB researcher Hien Tran.

Tran lied about having a Ph.D in statistics from Davis.

He was outted to both CARB staffers and at least one board member prior to the Dec. 12, 2008 vote on the diesel rules.

But the board went ahead with the draconian rules requiring all trucks and heavy equipment to retrofit their engines to reduce emissions containing particulate matter as small as 2.5 microns (PM2.5).

The idea is to protect people from the effects of PM2.5, which is blamed by some researchers for killing off hundreds of Californians a year. At least that's one side. Other studies have found little to no effect on mortality from PM2.5.

Tran discounted those opposition studies. And the researchers whose studies he used have never opened their data sets to independent scientists to see if their results could be replicated, so I think it's still highly questionable whether PM2.5 is as deadly as it's been made out to be. But that's a different story.

Back to Tran, how his lie was handled and the gooey mess it's left.

Turns out, not everyone who should have been told was informed about the Ph.D.

The board, for instance, was never notified.

Though one CARB spokesperson initially told me board members were told briefed in closed session, another told me the materials were "made available to those who asked."

At the board's meeting last month, member John Telles was clearly shocked when a group of public speakers brought it up.

"This is the first time I've actually been apprised that there was fraud in the organization here," he said. "In my world, if an article was published by somebody who didn't have a Ph.D. and said he had a Ph.D., the whole thing would be nixed...I just find it incredible."

I spoke with Telles later and he was equally frustrated that CARB staffers said during the meeting not to worry because they had shopped the report around again for more peer review to make sure it was kosher.

"The board should have been made aware that they were seeking outside sources for a second review to see if there was a problem," Telles said.

He considered the whole affair a blow to the board's credibility, especially among businesses that come directly under the new regulations, which will cost owners tens of thousands of dollars per truck.

No kidding.

Fellow board member, John Balmes, who was apparently the only board member who knew about the allegations prior to the Dec. 12 CARB meeting, felt it could have been handled better, but he stood by the report and the regulations.

He didn't bring it to his fellow board members' attention, he said, because he had notified CARB's executive director James Goldstene.

Regardless of Tran's transgressions, Balmes said the extensive peer review of the report was good enough for him. Not for me, but I'll get back to that in a minute.

Further, Balmes said even if the report were taken out of the equation CARB could justify the truck rule it passed last December.

"It (Tran's report) is a risk assessment tool that's been applied to support the on-road truck rule, but it's not the reason for the rule."

I disagree that Tran's report wasn't pivotal and I think Balmes himself makes my point.

"The main purpose of the report was to provide a tool for the ARB to use in determining how much in terms of health benefits the regulation would provide."

Exactly. And that's what Tran's report did.

He took a number of studies showing PM2.5 as deadly dangerous (carefully excluding those that showed no increased mortality due to PM2.5), he averaged death rates from different studies and then created a methodology for figuring out how many lives would be saved by taking a certain amount of PM2.5 out of the atmosphere annually.

Tran's report is the cornerstone for the regulations.

Of course, Balmes and CARB staffers have a ready answer to that in the much-touted peer review, which they say upholds the report by Tran (who they now refer to as "a person who managed some aspects" of the report rather than the lead author, by the way).

Here's the thing, though, only the draft report was given to six of the reviewers.

It's unclear if they ever read the final report, or the 150 pages of public comments, much of which came from scientists who disputed its findings.

As a side note, Balmes told me he also never read the final version with the public comments. Huh? First, am I the only sucker who did? Second, how do you vote on regulations based on a report when you only read the draft?

Also in the peer review process, nearly half of 12 scientists who weighted the studies used by Tran were authors or co-authors of those very studies. Not exactly an unbiased group.

I asked CARB for a list of names of reviewers who were contacted after they discovered the Tran deception. There were 10. Again, four of those had studies used in the report.

Even as Balmes characterized the Tran issue as a "tactic" being used by people who don't like the new rules he understood that if it wasn't handled properly "it would come back to bite the ARB."

No, it wasn't handled properly and, yeah, it's taken a big ol' chunk out of CARB's credibility.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at people.bakersfield.com/home/Blog/noholdsbarred, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com