Most Californians have probably never heard of the Scientific
Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants. Of the countless boards of
scientists and researchers in state government and academia, the SRP is
neither the most powerful nor the most glamorous. Its members—decorated
University of California researchers—are tasked with checking the work
of state-run environmental agencies, such as the Air Resources Board
and the Department of Pesticide Regulation, to determine what risk
certain airborne industrial chemicals have of making people sick. An
important job, most would agree.
So when five of its nine members were abruptly dismissed from the
panel last month, many with nothing more than a two-sentence “Thanks
for your service” letter, a lot more people started paying attention to
the SRP and who’s on it.
“It’s very important and complicated work,” said Paul Blanc, one of
the panel’s four remaining incumbent members. “This mass turnover is
Technically, none of the dismissed scientists were fired. Rather,
their terms expired and the folks that normally make the
appointments—Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Environmental
Protection Agency, Assembly Speaker John Pérez—didn’t reappoint them.
Some argue, however, that conservative, business-friendly legal
groups are to blame. And though Blanc managed to keep his seat on the
expert panel, the chairman of the group, toxicologist John Froines,
wasn’t so lucky.
You might remember Froines from recent regulatory debacles, such as
the June decision by the Department of Pesticide Regulations to ignore
its own scientists, led by Froines, when setting legal exposure limits
of farmworkers to the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide. The department
established the limit at more than 100 times what had been recommended.
Froines also presided over the SRP’s 2002 assessment of the
herbicide metam sodium, which called for strict regulations. Froines is
also an original member of the so-called “Chicago Seven,” a group of
radicals that included famed “yippie” activist Abbie Hoffman.
Froines doesn’t offer much opinion on his ouster, instead praising
the integrity of the panel itself, writing: “We maintained our
commitment to doing the best science possible and we never wavered from
Froines does not claim that outside industrial interests forced the
SRP shakeup—but the outside interests themselves are happy with the
results. The Pacific Legal Foundation, an anti-regulation law firm, is
claiming the scalps of the five dismissed panel members, citing its
longstanding lawsuit, which argued that members should adhere to
three-year terms and not be repeatedly reappointed, such as Froines,
who’s served since 1986.
“We felt it was essential going forward that it be staffed by new
folks that were more conscious of the economical impact of their
decisions,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Damien Schiff.
Meanwhile, a source with Assembly Speaker Pérez’s office hints that
the dismissal was all a procedural misunderstanding between Pérez and
UC president Mark Yudof: Yudof’s office sent the speaker a list of
potential appointees, Froines and other incumbents weren’t on it, and
Perez and other appointing powers thought the excluded scientists were
UC provost Lawrence Pitts, however, reminds that incumbent SRP members are automatically eligible for reappointment.
Local environmental groups have closely watched the panel shake-up,
as Froines is seen largely as a hero in the fight against the use of
methyl iodide and other toxic chemicals. Paul Towers, director of
Sacramento-based Pesticide Watch Education Fund, said he’ll be pushing
the Cal/EPA to step in and reappoint Froines.
“We believe Dr. Froines and other members brought a wealth of
experience and served the panel well over the years,” said Towers. “We
can only suspect that conservative legal groups have forced a decision
that is contrary to good science.”