A Parting Gift From Dourson: A Trove of Revealing Emails
Last week, the New York Times reported on the withdrawal of the nomination of Michael Dourson to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) chemical safety office—which we applauded as a win for public health.
The Times article mentioned and provided a link to a 400-page trove of emails to and from Dourson that were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in August by Greenpeace to the University of Cincinnati, where Dourson previously worked.
The emails shine a rare spotlight on a network, of which Dourson and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) are a part, that operates largely out of public view. It involves a coordinated effort between the chemical industry and its private and academic consultants to generate science that invariably supports the safety of the industry's chemicals, and pushes back against any regulatory and academic science that indicates otherwise. The emails make for very interesting reading, if you can skip through the myriad emails about scheduling calls and meetings (which make up the bulk of any of our inboxes, I suspect).
To pique your interest, let me start with one email relating to Dourson's nomination.
His nomination was publicly announced by Scott Pruitt on July 17. But nearly two months earlier, in an email (see page 178) dated May 23 and marked confidential, Dourson wrote to Kimberly White at ACC to let her know of his "appointment," and also alluding to the possibility (which came to pass) that he would be hired as an advisor before being confirmed:
Based on the recommendation of EPA Administrator Pruitt, President Trump has appointed me as the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Safety Assessment and Pollution Prevention. EPA wants to get my senate confirmation scheduled before the August recess. They may also want to hire me into the Agency in July, which apparently they can do as soon as the announcement is made. The announcement is made after background checks are completed (40 days is typical). At this point, please keep news of this appointment under wraps.
Now, ACC is no doubt upset by the Dourson withdrawal, having hired Dourson repeatedly to help defend its companies' chemicals and never wavering in support of his nomination. So it should come as no surprise that ACC is also unhappy with the Times' release of the emails, especially given that a large fraction of them involve communications that include Dourson and ACC employees.
Last Thursday the ACC took to its blog to object to the Times article as "misleading." The only specific it takes issue with, however, is that the article "paints a dubious picture of emails between one of our employees and Dr. Michael Dourson."
ACC's specific beef is that the Times flagged emails showing that Dourson and his university colleagues had exchanged drafts of a paper they were working on with an ACC staffer. ACC pointed out that the staffer in that case was a co-author of the paper. Fair enough.
But ACC's nit conveniently ignores other emails. One chain shows direct communications between Dourson and ACC involving another paper he co-authored that was in the final stages of publication in Dourson's go-to journal. Even though no one from ACC is a co-author on this paper, Dourson's emails indicate not only that ACC had the galley proofs of the paper, but that ACC staff seemed to be the keeper of them (see chain around page 213).
ACC's blog post goes on to cite its policy that scientific conclusions and judgments drawn by outside parties ACC hires are not subject to its control. But that policy goes on to state that "the Council shall have the right to review such judgments and conclusions" for "clarification, and format and editorial comments." Seems like an elephant could slip through that opening.
Recall that ACC recently embraced EPA Administrator Pruitt's new directive that bars EPA-funded scientists from serving on any agency advisory panel. The outlandish premise behind the directive is that EPA and the extramural researchers it funds are somehow in cahoots to find problems the agency can then regulate. So it's worth noting that, unlike ACC's contracts, EPA grants have no allowance for EPA to pre-review or edit the papers of researchers it funds.
But back to the emails, when ACC says there's no there there in them, don't believe it.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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