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Democrats ask Interior inspector general to investigate potential scientific integrity violation

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claims the department doesn't change "a comma" in scientific reports.

An investigation revealed a report by the National Park Service removed all mentions of climate change. Credit: Sheraz Sadiq/Flickr.
An investigation revealed a report by the National Park Service removed all mentions of climate change. Credit: Sheraz Sadiq/Flickr.

House and Senate Democrats are calling on the Department of the Interior’s inspector general to investigate whether the National Park Service (NPS) has violated its scientific integrity policy.

Two separate letters were sent on Thursday and Friday of last week calling for an investigation, following news that the agency had scrubbed any mention of climate change from a report on the impact of sea level rise and storm surges at NPS sites. The revelations contradict previous claims by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that his department does not censor science.

The letters come after Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting showed that NPS officials “deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change” in the drafts of the long awaited sea level rise report. The report — which still has not been publicly released — highlights the climate risks at 118 coastal national park sites.

Yet, after analyzing 18 different versions of the report, first drafted in the summer of 2016, Reveal found that the word “anthropogenic” was crossed out by an official in a February 2018 draft. And three references to “human activities” causing climate change were removed.

As both letters state, this may violate the National Park Service’s scientific integrity policy, which states that managers are prohibited from engaging in “dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship, or other misconduct that alters the content, veracity, or meaning or that may affect the planning, conduct, reporting, or application of scientific and scholarly activities.”

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One letter, sent April 5, was signed by five members of the House Committee on Natural Resources: Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Donald McEachin (D-VA), Donald Beyer (D-VA), Niki Tsongas (D-MA), and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). In it, they quote Zinke’s statements to their committee last month where he “vehemently denied” any wrongdoing related to a separate U.S. Geological Survey scientific report.

“I didn’t change a paragraph — a comma — in any document and I never would,” said Zinke, who denies the science behind climate change. “I don’t change a comma from any scientific report, but I do read it before it goes out.”

The findings from Reveal about the NPS report would appear to contradict this statement, the House Democrats argue. “While it is possible that his own pen or keystroke did not alter the NPS climate change report, at least one person that worked under his leadership did,” the lawmakers wrote.

“It is essential,” they continue, “that we understand whether the changes were made in response to explicit verbal or written direction, or whether they were a result of a culture of climate denial that leads employees to believe the path of least resistance for them and their work is to follow that lead?”

Meanwhile, on April 6, a group of Democratic senators — Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Duckworth (D- IL), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) — sent their own letter to the inspector general. In it, they ask for an investigation to identify who edited the NPS report and who directed them to do so. They also call for information into other violations of scientific integrity or instances of similar interference with scientific reports at the Interior Department.

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During a Senate hearing last month, Zinke told Hirono that the Interior Department does not censor science and challenged anyone to find an example of a report that has been changed.

The findings that the NPS report was altered is not the first time the Trump administration has omitted mentions of climate change in government reports or websites. Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stripped any mention of climate change from its new four year strategic plan. And over the past year climate data has been removed from government websites.

As Grijavla and the other members of the House Natural Resources Committee wrote in their letter, the NPS report incident “follows a pattern of climate change information being limited restricted, and censored by the Trump administration.”

The Department of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress.