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From The Bakersfield Californian

LOIS HENRY: Arrogance pollutes air board


Tuesday, Dec 01 2009 05:20 PM

Check out CARB's next meeting Dec. 9 and 10 via a live webcast at: http://www.cal-span.org/

As much as the California Air Resources Board would like to ignore this pesky little issue of a researcher lying about his credentials and using questionable methodology to pop out a report so the board could justify its draconian new diesel restrictions, I'm not lettin' it go.

Particularly after looking at documents one board member gathered to find out just how many CARB board members knew about the fraud prior to voting on the rule, which could cripple California's trucking industry.

The arrogance is breathtaking.

"Basically, I was guilty of thinking that since I 'knew' the underlying truth of the information we should not allow this stupid personnel problem to derail a critical rulemaking," wrote CARB Chair Mary Nichols in an email to board member John Telles about what she knew of the researcher's deception and when.

Errrk! Stop right there.

Since Nichols "knows" the truth of how pollutants affect health (the crux of the report by researcher Hien Tran), why'd we need a report at all? For that matter, why does CARB even need a research division? Or, following her logic on down the rabbit hole, why even have a voting board? Just crown Nichols "air queen" and be done with it.

But her email goes on.

"While the relentless criticism has been a distraction, frankly I think it is manageable."

She calls Tran's indiscretion "a very annoying distraction" even as she admits his actions were "both illegal and unethical."

Still she defends his report as solid and says, "At the time, I thought that Tran's voluntary demotion and removal from the project would be sufficient to insulate the rest of the ARB until we could proceed to disciplinary action and obtain a new review of the mortality report."

Oh, my. I suppose she's never heard the old saying about how when you're in a hole the first thing you should do is STOP DIGGING.

It's not just Nichols, though. Arrogance permeates CARB's ranks.

In a series of emails Telles gathered about the investigation into Tran's credentials, there's this gem from Bart Croes, CARB's Research Division Chief -- and Tran's boss:

"Hi Hien -- Sorry that you have to go through this, and it shouldn't matter to Enstrom whether or not you have a PhD, but I'd like to respond to John Balmes."

Yeah, cause a citizen shouldn't ask bothersome questions of the people we're paying. Tsk! Tsk!

Enstrom, by the way, is James Enstrom, a UCLA epidemiologist who was alerted to Tran's lack of credentials by a statistician from North Carolina, Stan Young, who'd first asked about it in July 2008 and was given the brush-off. Balmes is another CARB board member who was alerted to the problem by Enstrom in December 2008 before the board voted on the rule. Both he and Nichols chose to withhold the Tran information from the full board.

Speaking of Balmes, he, like Nichols, also said he knew enough to cast his vote for the truck rule regardless of Tran's report.

"I based my original vote for the truck rule on what I know of the science, not on Tran's report," he told me in an email. "Therefore, I do not see the need to suspend the rule based on Tran's misrepresentation."

So was this report just some feel-good farce to lull the public into thinking we have a voice in our own governance? (Gosh, that would be so cynical.)

Balmes did allow that Tran's misrepresentation casts doubt on CARB's credibility overall and the report should be redone by an independent body.

At least we agree on that.

After reading both the draft and final reports, plus all the comments attached to both and the studies listed in the report, I also disagree that it was a mere compilation of available science, as Nichols, Balmes and others are now trying to color it.

Tran used some -- but not all -- studies available on how many people PM2.5 may kill each year. He dismissed studies that found little to no evidence of premature deaths. And he ignored parts of other studies showing elevated death rates in other parts of the country, but little to none in California.

That's just one of the judgment-based aspects of Tran's report that seemed to me -- a mere layperson -- biased toward a particular outcome.

Incidentally, Young began asking about Tran's credentials in July 2008 after reading the report. "The reasoning appeared too flawed to be done by a capable statistician," Young wrote to board member Telles.

Telles has been openly appalled not only by Tran's deception but by the lackadaisical attitude among CARB staffers toward the issue.

Though CARB's lawyer, Ellen Peter, has said the Dec. 2008 vote on the truck rule is legal, Telles has asked whether the board should take some kind of action to assure the public the rule has been properly vetted.

It was supposed to be on next week's agenda, but all I could find was a discussion item looking at the rule's economic impact.

"I have no idea what to do next if they ignore my request," Telles told me. "It's very frustrating."

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