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EPA Watchdog Slams Agency's Chief of Staff Who Refuses to Cooperate With Investigations

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EPA Watchdog Slams Agency's Chief of Staff Who Refuses to Cooperate With Investigations

The Environmental Protection Agency's top internal watchdog rebuked the department head's chief of staff for "open defiance" in refusing to cooperate with an audit and an investigation into whether he pressured a department scientist to change her congressional testimony, as the New York Times reported.


The EPA's Inspector General Charles Sheehan also criticized EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler for his refusal to take action and address his chief of staff's refusal to cooperate with investigators, according to The Hill.

The letter, which is stamped Oct. 29, but was released Wednesday is written to Wheeler. It calls Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson's behavior a particularly serious and flagrant problem.

"To countenance open defiance even in one instance — much less two, both by a senior public official setting precedent for himself and all agency staff — is ruinous," Sheehan concluded in the letter, as The New York Times reported.

The missive falls under the category of a "Seven Day Letter," meaning it is a step in the process used to notify Congress of serious impediments to carrying out investigations. Wheeler had to give the letter and any responses he wishes to include to the appropriate congressional committees within seven calendar days.

The audit of Mr. Jackson stems from an investigation into emails that showed Jackson trying to pressure scientist Deborah Swackhamer into altering her planned testimony before the House Science Committee. Dr. Swackhamer, for her part, said she had "felt bullied," as the New York Times reported.

The investigation is believed to revolve around Jackson's involvement in the firing for former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's scheduler. The scheduler was pressured by Jackson to retroactively delete meetings that Pruitt held that were ethically dubious. She refused since it was a federal crime and was subsequently fired, according to the New York Times.

Sheehan's letter describes the ways Jackson has delayed and avoided and tried to sideline investigators. It also details Sheehan's failed attempts to talk to Wheeler about the investigation and the audit, as The Hill reported.

"Since October 21, 2019, neither you nor any agency official has contacted OIG on this urgent matter," Sheehan wrote.

Sheehan contrasts Wheeler's actions with his own words, citing an August 2018 memo that Wheeler wrote to the EPA.

"Cooperating with the Office of Inspector General to Ensure the US Environmental Protection Agency is Fulfilling the Public's Trust (Attachment A). There you echo the Act's explicit mandate of full agency cooperation: 'It is imperative and expected that agency personnel provide the OIG with access to personnel ... or other information ... needed by the OIG to accomplish its mission,'" Sheehan wrote in the letter. Yet, the letter goes on to detail how Wheeler and, in particular, Jackson have defied exactly what Wheeler said they are supposed to do.

Sheehan later discusses the importance of cooperation and the need for the Inspector General to gather information without impediment and again draws attention to Wheeler and Jackson's defiance of his own mandate.

"As it is for the agency itself, information is the oxygen for the Inspector General's office," Sheehan wrote in his letter. "If information is choked off, we cannot fulfill our congressional charter and produce work of the rigor and quality expected by the American public You reaffirmed in your message to all agency employees that Inspector General access to all information is 'imperative' in 'Fulfilling the Public's Trust.'"

With the release of the letter yesterday, an EPA spokesman said Wheeler directed Jackson to sit down with the Office of the Inspector General.

"Today, the Administrator spoke with Acting Inspector General Chuck Sheehan to inform him that Mr. Jackson has agreed to sit for an interview with the O.I.G.'s office," the spokesman, Michael Abboud, said, as the New York Times reported. "E.P.A. believes that this accommodation resolves the issues identified" in Mr. Sheehan's letter.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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