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Exclusive: Professor who downplayed oil spill has federal government contracts

By Brad Jacobson
Thursday, November 18, 2010 8:50 EDT
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Investigation also finds BP telling university what to research

Quoted in scores of news outlets, appearing on dozens of network news programs and even landing a guest spot on The Late Show with David Letterman, oil spill expert Ed Overton has been a ubiquitous presence in the media throughout the Gulf oil spill disaster.

Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at Louisiana State University, Overton, who has been criticized for downplaying the effects of the worst offshore oil spill in history, has also headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s chemical hazard assessment team for over 25 years.

Yet in nearly every media appearance, and even during congressional testimony, Overton, an environmental chemist, has omitted this long-term, high-level contracting position for the federal government through LSU, a Raw Story investigation has found.

Overton’s prominent NOAA role and questionable objectivity

Many marine scientists have received NOAA grants and funding off and on over the years and many have also omitted such ties during media appearances and congressional testimony.

Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald, for example, who has actually been a vocal critic of statements made by BP and NOAA — including their estimates of both the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf while the well was still gushing and how much remained once the well had been capped — confirmed to Raw Story via email that he and several other scientists testifying before Congress and speaking to the media haven’t necessarily divulged past or present funding from NOAA.

But Overton’s prominent position as the chief chemist and principal architect of NOAA’s Emergency Response Division (formerly the Hazardous Materials Response Division) dating back to the early eighties, along with his tendency to provide rosier-than-average assessments of the effects of the Gulf oil spill since the catastrophe began –- opinions often in line with those of BP, NOAA and other federal officials –- have raised questions about the omission of his contracting work and the scientific objectivity of his public statements.

Additionally, as professor emeritus, Overton confirmed to Raw Story that he officially retired from LSU and no longer receives a salary from the university; all his income tied to his university association since May 2009 has come through grants and contracts, and mostly through his work for NOAA. The latest NOAA funding for his work was a $1.3 million five-year grant.

Just days after the oil spill began in April, BP and the Coast Guard were telling Americans that no oil appeared to be leaking into the Gulf after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. In a Time magazine article at the time, Overton is the only scientist who jumped on this bandwagon, saying, “Right now it looks like we dodged a bullet.”

While Overton purports to only provide his personal science-based opinions, as he did in an interview last week with Raw Story, he praised BP back in May for “stepping up to the plate” to begin compensating “some of the locals.”

Though these types of public statements may be unrelated to subsequent grants by BP, they too raise questions.

In June, LSU was the first university to receive funding from BP’s $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which is supposed to support universities in the Gulf area in researching the effects of oil spills. LSU received $5 million from BP upfront as part of a $10 million grant over the next 10 years.

In speaking with LSU’s Office of Research and Economic Development, Raw Story also found that, while all studies performed by the university will be scientifically peer-reviewed, BP decides what areas LSU will research.

None of this funding, for instance, will go toward the study of the long-term health impacts on the “locals” — something that Overton has also tended to downplay, such as during his August testimony before a congressional body.

Speaking on the effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals found in crude oil, Overton, who is also an expert in environmental toxicology, merely echoed federal talking points, telling Congress that PAHs do not bioaccumulate, without disclosing other possible impacts.

Texas Tech University Professor Ronald Kendall, testifying on the same day, was then quick to point out that while the risk of bioaccumulation of PAHs appears low, chronic carcinogenic effects can still lethally damage the DNA of both marine and human life.

Overton: “You can Google and find out a lot about me”

At the beginning of an interview with Raw Story, Overton claimed that he “always” discloses his contracting work with NOAA. As the interview proceeded, though, he then said he tells “anybody and everybody that’s willing to listen,” before he finally admitted it was “perfectly legitimate” that he does not provide full disclosure.

“What gives me the credibility is that I’ve been doing this as part of the NOAA team for a long time,” Overton said.

“Now, you can infer some information from that,” he granted. “But I don’t have to run my opinions by NOAA, NOAA has not asked me to do that, and I wouldn’t do it if they did ask me. Because when the media asks me a question or anybody asks me a question, I’m giving my opinion as Ed Overton.”

But how can the public “infer some information” from Overton’s NOAA affiliation if this is almost never disclosed when he’s providing comments to the media?

“People can look me up,” he told Raw Story. “I’m part of the public record. You can Google and find out a lot about me.”

And what about omitting this disclosure while providing congressional testimony on the Gulf oil spill?

“They had some NOAA reps there,” said Overton. “And NOAA gave their talk and I gave my talk. But again, I was up there representing LSU, not necessarily other folks.”

Ironically, one of the rare instances when this disclosure has been made occurred during his visit to a late-night comedy talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, during Letterman’s introduction of Overton.

Experts say disclosure critical, LSU professor calls Overton “industry shill”

In interviews with Raw Story, experts found Overton’s defense of non-disclosure wanting.

One of them, a fellow senior sciences professor at Overton’s own LSU, also noted that Overton “does not appear to be an unbiased source of information” and found it laughable that the head of NOAA’s chemical hazard assessment team is purporting to provide public comments as an “independent scientist.”

The LSU professor, who spoke with Raw Story on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the university, explained, “The issue is that everybody who is involved in investigating this event and its effects needs to be upfront and honest about the sources of funding that they receive.”

“It doesn’t necessarily negate their credibility,” he said. “But they should at least be honest and open about it. If anything, that makes them more credible.”

The professor clarified, “I don’t think, per se, getting money from NOAA or EPA or FDA or any of the regulatory agencies necessarily means that the science is bad.”

But he went on to say that his impression of Overton’s consistently rosy scientific assessments, coupled with Overton’s routine omission of full disclosure, is what’s most troubling to him.

“I think that Dr. Overton comes across as being an industry shill,” the professor offered bluntly. “He has never said anything that was not in favor of what the industry was saying and continued to minimize the effects from day one about how bad this spill and its effects would be.”

In Overton’s interview with Raw Story, he went on to say that his main reason for not disclosing his high-level contracting position with NOAA is because it would appear that he’s boasting about his accomplishments.

“It’s just that I’m not going to stand in a short interview and introduce a title and sound like I’m trying to be bigger than I am,” he explained, adding that would seem “like I’m trying to beat my chest…like I’m the Price of Wales.”

Chris Pincetich, a toxicologist and marine biologist at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, told Raw Story, “If Dr. Overton wants to continue to mask his true associations and roles in the spill and claim he’s doing so because he’s trying to sound humble, that’s his prerogative. But I don’t feel it really does justice to the public and our need for accurate information.”

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., agreed.

“As someone who’s got several titles, I can understand how someone might be a little reluctant on some occasions to stack them up as evidence of his or her expertise,” Clark said. “That said, I think that’s a very poor reason for not being as forthcoming as possible as to his professional connections.”

“Universities for many, many years have been up to their necks in federal grants, in research money from businesses of all kinds,” he explained. “The question is, is it possible to be unconflicted? And I would say the answer is no.”

“Therefore, if that poison is always floating around,” Clark continued, “it’s absolutely clear that the best antidote to even the appearance of conflict of interest is full disclosure.”

Pincetich and other experts interviewed for this article noted that many individuals have been serving dual roles during the oil spill response.

Yet it’s for this reason precisely that he believes full disclosure is necessary for people to be able to accurately assess the sources of information they’re receiving.

“The critical information that the public needed to make scientific and value-based judgments was often clouded by a lot of these folks which are serving dual roles either through their appointments to Unified Command or, like Ed Overton, their dual funding,” Pincetich said.

Overton consulted on and defended pilloried federal oil spill report

Pincetich pointed out that the Obama administration’s oil spill report that estimated 75% of the oil from the Gulf was effectively “gone,” a report on which Overton consulted for NOAA, was a prime example of how federal information “can sometimes be a little too rosy” and of why those with dual roles such as Overton should provide full disclosure.

Most outside scientists assailed the veracity of the August federal report, and a subsequent analysis by University of Georgia scientists soon arrived at quite opposite findings.

But Overton noted at the time that while “everybody seems skeptical” about NOAA’s report, he didn’t “think it’s too far off,” telling the AP that it was mostly good work and positing to the New York Times that it might have even overestimated the amount of oil left in the Gulf.

He also pointed out at the time that “[t]he Gulf is incredible in its resiliency and ability to clean itself up,” adding, “I think we are going to be flabbergasted by the little amount of damage that has been caused by this spill.”

Only days before that August federal report was released, CNN had aired a segment on AC 360 called “Was the oil disaster overblown?”

The sole expert interviewed during the segment? Ed Overton.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper began the interview, saying, “Ed Overton is professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental Sciences at LSU. He joins me now. Professor was this overblown?”

“Well, I don’t know, I certainly didn’t overblow it,” Overton responded. “People that have been around an oil spill for a long time I don’t think overblowed it.”

Pincetich concluded his interview with Raw Story by underscoring his belief in the public’s right to know “the true background, the true funding and the true motivations” of experts speaking on the Gulf oil disaster.

“I think this investigation that you’re doing now is a perfect case where we’re hearing a lot of stuff from an individual that we don’t know everything about their motivations,” he said.

Pincetich added, “It’s disturbing when scientists lose their objectivity because of funding sources,” which is why we need to “diligently understand the ‘position statements’ such as those being produced by folks with dual affiliations.”

As Raw Story was wrapping up its interview with Overton, he said, “You’re trying to come up with a controversy where there is none.”

When told that some people disagree with his view, he replied, “You know, that’s the way life is. If we all agreed with everybody, we’d be married to the same woman.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Overton has performed long-term contracting work through LSU heading up NOAA’s chemical hazard assessment team in the Hazardous Materials Response Division. This branch of NOAA is now the Emergency Response Division, formerly known as the Hazardous Materials Response Division.]

Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/bradpjacobson.

 
 
 
 
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