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Context of 'November 2003: Link Found between Leukemia and Formaldehyde'

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A Klamath River farmer and prospective voter.A Klamath River farmer and prospective voter. [Source: Sierra Times]Interior Department official Sue Ellen Woodbridge is contacted, to her surprise and initial disbelief, by Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney is concerned with a situation developing in Oregon, a battleground electoral state that the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign had lost by less than half a percentage point in November 2000. Drought-stricken ranchers and farmers—largely Republican in makeup—are clamoring for the irrigation water they need to keep their croplands and pastures green. [Washington Post, 6/27/2007] The farmers and ranchers of the area are key to the re-election of Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). [CounterPunch, 7/16/2007] But federal biologists say that the Endangered Species Act gives the government no choice: if the water is released, two imperiled species of fish will be gravely impacted. Both science and the law are on the side of the fish, but Cheney steps in, apparently more out of political concerns for Oregon than for the farmers and ranchers. According to Cheney’s aides, he first looks for a way around the law. According to an Oregon congressman who lobbies for the farmers, when Cheney finds no way to circumvent the law, he instead attacks the science protecting the fish (see April 2002). The government eventually declares, in spite of all scientific evidence, that the water release and subsequent draining of the Klamath River basin will not harm the fish. Instead, the water release causes the largest fish kill in modern Western history (see September 2002). Cheney’s role in the fish kill will not be revealed until 2007. [Washington Post, 6/27/2007] After the Washington Post reveals Cheney’s role in the fish kill, the House will open hearings on Cheney’s activities (see June 27-28, 2007).

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Endangered Species Act, Gordon Smith, Sue Ellen Woodbridge, US Department of the Interior

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

The court orders the EPA to come up with regulations governing formaldehyde emissions at wood products facilities by February 27, 2004 (see February 2004). [Los Angeles Times, 5/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Environmental Protection Agency

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

EPA staffers meet with the agency’s top pollution regulator, Jeffrey Holmstead, in his fifth-floor conference room to discuss a February 2004 deadline for creating a rule governing formaldehyde emissions at wood products plants. Holmstead, a lawyer, formerly worked at Latham & Watkins representing one of the nation’s largest plywood producers. Also present at the meeting is William Wehrum, the EPA air office’s general counsel, who had also represented timber interests as a partner of the same law firm. They meet with Timothy Hunt, a lobbyist for the American Forest & Paper Association who is an old acquaintance of Holmstead, and with Claudia M. O’Brien, the association’s lawyer. O’Brien had previously been a law partner of Holmstead’s and Wehrum’s at Latham & Watkins. During the meeting she proposes to exempt “low-risk” plywood, particleboard and other plants from strict emission controls, arguing that such facilities are often located in isolated areas where their emissions pose a relatively small risk to public health. She also contends that the expense of adding new controls to the plants, which the industry complains could cost as much as $1 billion, would make them vulnerable to foreign competition. Holmstead likes the idea and decides that the agency should push the proposal, despite opinions from EPA career attorneys that the exemption would violate the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments (see March 2003). [Los Angeles Times, 5/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Timothy Hunt, William Wehrum, Jeffrey Holmstead, Claudia M. O’Brien, Environmental Protection Agency, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

Michael Kelly, a federal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, heads a team for the National Marine Fisheries Service which is charged with reviewing the Bureau of Reclamation’s 10-year plan for allocating the Klamath River’s water. The team completes a report concluding that the Bureau’s plan would jeopardize the coho salmon, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The report makes its way to lawyers at the Justice Department who reject Kelly’s findings and order him to rewrite his biological opinion. Two weeks later, Kelly submits a new report reaffirming the team’s earlier findings, but supported by more scientific and detailed legal analysis. The recommendations are again rejected. Against the team’s advice, the Bureau of Land management will approve lower water levels for the Klamath River, based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, which Kelly refuses to endorse. “Obviously someone at a higher level order the service to accept this new plan,” Kelly will observe. The decision will lead to the death of 33,000 salmon and steelhead trout (see September 2002). [Associated Press, 5/20/2004]

Entity Tags: Bureau of Land Management, Michael Kelly, National Academy of Sciences

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

More than 33,000 spawning salmon and steelhead trout die in the lower Klamath River due to the rivers abnormally low water level (see November 18, 2003). The fish succumb to “gill rot” which spreads rampantly among the fish as a result of warm water temperatures caused by the river’s shallow waters. The lower water-level is a result of the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to cut the river’s flow to 750 cubic-feet per second and divert the remaining water to farmers for irrigation. The decision was made against the recommendations of two reports by a team of government biologists (see April 2002). [High Country News, 6/23/2003; Associated Press, 5/20/2004]

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

The National Cancer Institute publishes a study demonstrating that 25,000 workers exposed to formaldehyde had an increased risk of leukemia. The EPA will ignore the results of this study when it creates a new federal rule regulating formaldehyde emissions in February 2004 (see September 2002). [Los Angeles Times, 5/21/2004]

Entity Tags: National Cancer Institute, Environmental Protection Agency

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

The US Fish and Wildlife Service accepts the blame for a government policy that resulted in the largest fish kill in history. The US Fish and Wildlife Service admits that its decision (see April 2002) to authorize a water diversion in the Upper Klamath Basin for the benefit of commercial agriculture, trapped migrating Chinook, Coho salmon, and other species in stagnant water, killing some 33,000 fish (see September 2002). [US Fish and Wildlife Service, 11/7/2003 pdf file; San Francisco Chronicle, 11/19/2003]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), US Fish and Wildlife Service

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health completes a study of 10,000 workers who have been exposed to formaldehyde and find that they have an increased risk of leukemia. Though not published until March, it is posted on the institute’s website in early 2004. The EPA does not consider the results of this study when it creates a new federal rule for regulating formaldehyde emissions in February 2004 (see September 2002). [Los Angeles Times, 5/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) meets its February 27, 2004 deadline to come up with a new federal rule regulating formaldehyde emissions. Ignoring the opinion of experts, the EPA did not take into account the findings of two recent studies (see November 2003) (see Early 2004) that had found that workers who were exposed to formaldehyde were at an elevated risk of leukemia. The EPA said it did not have time to incorporate the two findings before the deadline. Though extensions for such deadlines are often given, the agency did not request one. Instead, the EPA relied on a cancer risk assessment by the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, a private, nonprofit research organization, funded primarily by chemical companies. That assessment was about 10,000 times weaker than the level previously used by the EPA in setting standards for formaldehyde exposure. The new federal rule is modeled on a proposal that had been designed by a lobbyist for the wood products industry (see January 14, 2002). It creates a new category of “low-risk” plants, which gives the agency the authority to decide on a plant-by-plant basis which facilities pose a risk to public health. It initially exempts eight wood products plants from having to install pollution controls for formaldehyde and other emissions, but could eventually extend the exemptions to 147 or more of the 223 facilities nationwide. The exemption allows qualifying plants to legally skirt pollution-control requirements that had been mandated by a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act requiring all large industrial plants to use “best available” technology in order to reduce emissions of 189 substances. Though backers of the new rule claim that it does not violate the amendment, the lawmakers who wrote the legislation disagree. “I don’t have any doubt but that is a way to get around the policy which we worked hard to achieve,” former Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.) will tell the Los Angeles Times in May. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) similarly says the exemption is “directly contrary to our intent.” The new rule will save the industry as much as $66 million annually for about 10 years in potential emission control costs. [Los Angeles Times, 5/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), David F. Durenberger, Environmental Protection Agency, Henry A. Waxman

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

Michael Kelly, a federal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, resigns complaining that “threatened coho salmon in the Klamath basin still do not have adequate flow conditions to assure their survival” and that his recommendations continue to be politicized by higher-ups. Kelley had previously blown the whistle on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after they had twice rejected the recommendations of a team he headed for the National Marine Fisheries Service (see April 2002). The BLM decision to ignore the recommendations led to the death of 33,000 steelhead and federally protected salmon in the Klamath River (see September 2002), the largest fish kill in US history. More recently, Kelly explains, his regional manager, Jim Lecky, has attempted to overide a study he conducted concluding that a levee repair proposed by the California Department of Fish and Game on the 120-acre Eel River Wildlife Area would endanger California Coastal Chinook salmon and adversely impact Dungeness crab, herring, larval rockfish, eelgrass, other salmonids and the overall ecosystem. “[A]ny amount of caution would dictate that this project never be considered,” he says in a resignation letter he will release on May 19. He says the motivation behind the project appears to be concentrating “certain species of ducks into a smaller area for hunting purposes.” Kelly adds that his position is supported by fisheries biologists within the Department of Fish and Game as well as local wetland scientists and ornithologists. He will also say in his letter that there is low morale among the NOAA Fisheries staff in the region and that his colleagues are “embarrassed and disgusted by the agency’s apparent misuse of science.” [PEER, 5/19/2004; Kelly, 5/19/2004; Associated Press, 5/20/2004]

Entity Tags: Jim Lecky, Michael Kelly

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

Some of the tens of thousands of salmon killed due to the artificial water lowering by the Department of the Interior.Some of the tens of thousands of salmon killed due to the artificial water lowering by the Department of the Interior. [Source: Environmental News Service]The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), decides to investigate the role of Vice President Dick Cheney in a 2002 salmon kill (see April 2002) on Northern California’s Klamath River, the largest fish kill in modern Western history (see September 2002). “We know where the smoking gun lays,” says Chris Lawson, a fisherman and president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association. No one in Northern California or Oregon (another state affected by the fish kill) knew of Cheney’s role until a recent story in the Washington Post uncovered Cheney’s successful attempt to subvert both scientific evidence and the Endangered Species Act to allow a water release that drastically lowered the water level in the Klamath. The day the article appears, Thompson and 35 other Democrats call for a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee, saying in a letter that “[t]he ramifications of that salmon kill are still being felt today as returns to the Klamath River are so low that commercial, sport and tribal fishing seasons have been curtailed for the past three years.” A day later, Rahall agrees. The hearing will be held a month later (see August 1, 2007). In October 2002, Thompson piled 500 pounds of dead coho salmon in front of the Interior Department, accusing that agency of “gross mismanagement” in the wildlife disaster. Now Thompson asks, “We know that science was manipulated and the law was violated. Did in fact the vice president of the United States put pressure on mid-level bureaucrats to alter the science and circumvent the law in order to gain political votes for his re-election or the election of other people in Oregon?” Cheney’s office responds to the hearings by saying it is “disappointing the Democrats would rather investigate than legislate,” and that the Post story is nothing more than “a repackaging of old accusations.” Cheney’s office refuses to say whether Cheney will agree to testify before the committee. The reduced river flow in 2002, says Thompson, “wasn’t about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon.” Since the fish kill, the courts have prohibited the diversion of Klamath water for agricultural use once the water levels drop below a critical point. But in the years after the fish kill, the salmon catch has been gravely reduced. Commercial fishing in California and Oregon has suffered a more than 90% drop as recently as 2006; Congressional Democrats say the result has been over $60 million in damage to coastal economies. Only in 2007 have the number of young salmon in the Klamath shown indications that salmon numbers may once again be increasing. [Associated Press, 6/28/2007; Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, 7/9/2007] However, the Klamath salmon are still gravely threatened by rampant fish diseases infesting tens of thousands of juvenile salmon, as well as abnormally high water temperatures and low water levels. [CounterPunch, 7/16/2007]

Entity Tags: Mike Thompson, Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, Chris Lawson, House Natural Resources Committee, Nick Rahall, US Department of the Interior, Washington Post, Endangered Species Act, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: US Environmental Record

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