National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director Jane Lubchenco in her previous incarnation as a marine biology professor was an environmental "rock star" as a consequence of her attention-getting scientific activism. She is a "rock star" no more.
Upon entering government, Dr. Lubchenco no longer automatically gives deference to ecological and human health over commercial concerns. This was painfully evidenced by her willingness to release (and endorse) a skimpily documented government report reassuring the public that most of the oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico had vanished. It was a conclusion vigorously challenged by a number of independent scientists who complained that the available data was either contradictory or incomplete.
In the view of critics, her premature optimism did not stop there. She unequivocally declared that fish in areas cleared of oil were safe to eat. It was an assurance that caused uneasiness even among the fishermen who stood most to benefit from the all-clear signal. What if she had jumped the gun? The credibility of both the government and fishing industry would be shattered with devastating economic and political consequences for all concerned.
In her salad days as an Oregon State University marine biology professor and crusader against overfishing, she would never have signed off on a report with such sketchy scientific documentation. This is not a woman who would have "thrown caution to the winds", and whose mantra was "science should be used to change harmful environmental practices so as to create a sustainable world." She had always insisted that the emphasis must be on preservation of ecological and human health ahead of economic growth if commercial activity were to prove environmentally sustainable. That means treating any previously polluted location as suspect until proven safe, not the other way around.
But at NOAA, Dr. Lubchenco knuckled under to political pressure to put the best face on the aftermath of the BP spill which had caused the Obama Administration so much political grief.
It should also be noted that her upbeat pronouncements that the seafood was safe to eat from waters officially declared free of contamination downplayed the following: The impacts on Gulf fisheries from exposure to the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil are unclear. Lubchenco has said that even though there is some evidence of these dispersants bio-accumulating in Gulf marine life, the chemicals pose no threat to human health. But there has been only minimal testing of dispersants. Nor has definitive research yet been conducted on whether pregnant women and young children are at greater risk from consumption of Gulf fish with contaminant levels deemed safe for healthy adults.
Lubchenco's reaction to all this uncertainty is that "we are comfortable with our numbers until we learn more."
That is a far cry from her days in academia when she advocated not proceeding with implementation of environmental policy unless and until sound scientific ecological principles were incorporated into the process.
Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, now available for pre-order.