Scientific misconduct at USGS lab affects Arizona

According to an Inspector General report published June 15, 2016, the inorganic section of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo. manipulated data on a variety of projects from 1996 to 2014. The manipulation was caught in 2008, but continued another six years.

The Inspector General report “ detailed two instances in which mass spectrometer operators in the Energy Geochemistry Laboratory’s Inorganic Section had violated established laboratory practices without detection for many years. The initial incident involved scientific misconduct that began in 1996 and continued undiscovered until 2008. The second incident began in 2008 and continued undiscovered until late 2014.”

“Once the results of the inquiry became known, USGS closed the Inorganic Section, effective February 25, 2016. Along with the closure, the agency initiated personnel actions, started determining what should be done with the lab equipment, and began notifying end users of potentially suspect data generated in the lab. USGS currently is assessing the full impacts of the incident on affected research and assessment projects, a process that will take some time to complete. USGS accused the chemist of data manipulation by intentionally changing the results produced by the mass spectrometer. The chemist also failed to preserve the data. Further, the Bureau accused the chemist of failing to operate the mass spectrometer according to established practices, which constituted scientific misconduct.”

“Twenty-four research and assessment projects that have national and global interest were potentially affected by erroneous information. These affected projects represented about $108 million in funding from FY 2008 through 2014.” Assessment of uranium in the environment in and around Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was one of the affected projects.

Arizona State Geologist, Lee Allison, notes on his blog:

“According to the report, the matter was discovered in late 2014, but had been taking place since 2008. This covers the time period when the Secretary of Interior was conducting a review of impacts of potential mineral exploration and development, particularly of uranium, in northern Arizona. As a result of the federal studies, the Secretary placed a 20-year moratorium on exploration and mining on nearly 1 million acres of federal lands in the region.”

“The fraudulent data could bring into question the scientific justification of the land withdrawal, and the current political effort to establish a 1.8 million acre national monument in the region specifically to protect the area from impacts on water from uranium mining.”

My report, “Uranium mining ban near Grand Canyon all politics, no science” was on work done by the Arizona Geological Survey which depended, in part, on USGS data. I think, however, that the basis of the Arizona Geological Survey report remains valid.

Read full Inspector General report.

UPDATE from the Daily Caller:

EXCLUSIVE: Congressman Says Fed Lab Closure For Data Manipulation Is ‘Suspicious’

Sally Jewell speaks at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, California. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Mis-conduct by two U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) officials led to the “suspicious” shutdown of a federal scientific lab in Lakewood, Colorado, without informing Congress, a skeptical lawmaker and career engineer told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“The way they closed the facility without notifying Congress of it until after the fact, that seems a little suspicious,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican and member of the House Natural Resources Committee, in an interview Monday.

“If it was just some tweaking of the equipment, then something’s wrong. They didn’t close the facility over a piece of equipment being mis-calibrated,” Westerman told TheDCNF. To date, no federal official has publicly explained why the two analysts manipulated the data over such a long period of time.

The unusual closure occurred eight years after a USGS analyst resigned in 2008 while under investigation for manipulating energy-related data from 1996 to 2008. He had worked in the inorganic section of the Energy Geochemistry Laboratory. Despite the resignation, however, a second analyst almost immediately continued distorting research data until 2014.

USGS consequently closed the lab in March 2016, but Westerman thinks it is odd that an entire lab was shuttered without first telling Congress.

The analysts consistently calibrated equipment beyond what’s typically allowed within the scientific community, which affected test outcomes, often altering data by as much as 20 percent, USGS spokeswoman Anne-Berry Wade previously told TheDCNF.

The manipulated data was “basic scientific research,” said Westerman, who was a professional engineer for 24 years before entering politics, with degrees in agricultural and biological engineering. “You’re talking about the building blocks of research.”

Because the data is so important, Westerman worries that “this stuff has a domino effect. If that data is flawed coming out of that research lab, then all that research downstream is flawed. I would hate to think that any kind of project or any big policy decisions were made by some flawed data.”

Westerman also wonders what happened to the backup data for the research done by the two former USGS employees and he’s not happy with what he’s been told to date by Department of Interior officials.

“Why were all of the notes and calculations and backup data either never produced or destroyed? Why did it go on for so long? Why can’t they just give us a straight answer,” Westerman asked. “It sure smells fishy. There’s just too many things that raise a red flag and I just don’t have a good feeling about it.”

USGS officials knew about the first analyst’s misconduct years before it was stopped but they were oblivious to the second analyst’s actions, even though data issues were widely known outside the lab, TheDCNF previously reported. The agency also procrastinated in notifying scientists who may have depended upon the flawed data.

USGS is unaware of any affected policy decisions, Wade previously told TheDCNF, but the Department of the Interior Inspector General disagreed, saying in a June 2016 report that “the full extent of the impacts are not yet known but … they will be serious and far ranging.”

USGS also continues investigating the effects of the data manipulations, but refuses to reveal what punishments the second analyst or any supervisors faced. No recommendations for prosecution were referred to the Department of Justice because the IG only conducted an inspection, which bears significantly less consequences than a full investigation or audit.

“Maybe they need to take an investigative approach,” Westerman told TheDCNF. “We need to raise the rug up and see what’s under it.”

Additionally, the watchdog knew about the second analyst’s manipulation more than a year before its inspection was published.

The IG was told that a USGS employee had boasted, saying “tell me what you want and I will get it for you. What we do is like magic,” although the exact context of that quote is unclear.

“That’s highly suspect when people talk like that,” Westerman said. “That’s not what you’d expect from a federal research lab.”

The IG, however, has said no further investigations are planned.

What happened to the oil in the Gulf of Mexico?

There is controversy over how much of the approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon well remain in the Gulf of Mexico.

A team from the National Incident Command, the Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calculated an “oil budget” for the spill. “The oil budget calculations are based on direct measurements wherever possible and the best available scientific estimates where measurements were not possible.” The report is without any documentation. The results are shown in the graphic below.


The Administration announced that much of the oil was eaten by bacteria. A report in Science disagrees with the government estimates:

“Oceanographers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts surveyed the gulf around the BP well from the research ship Endeavor from 19 to 28 June, a period of heavy flow. Led by oceanographer Richard Camilli, the team deployed an array of instruments on both a cable-lowered water sampler and an autonomous underwater vehicle. All told, the instrumentation made more than 57,000 separate chemical analyses of a plume southwest of the well.

“The first thing that the researchers noticed was that the plume wasn’t quite as massive as many news reports had made out. The plume surveyed by Endeavor was only 200 meters thick and about 2 kilometers wide. Although plenty of oil was flowing from the ruptured well, it didn’t look much like an underwater oil slick. The team’s camera picked up a yellowish fog half a kilometer from the well, and water samples farther from the well did not look or smell like oil. “The plume was not a river of Hershey’s syrup,” says marine geochemist Christopher Reddy of the WHOI group.

“The plume did, however, contain more than 50 micrograms per liter (about 0.05 parts per million) of a group of particularly toxic petroleum compounds that includes benzene, the team reports online today in Science. That amount of benzene-related petroleum compounds is roughly consistent with the 1 to 2 parts per million of total oil reported in plumes by some other researchers.

“On the microbe front, the WHOI team also found differences. A report released last week by a group of federal agencies led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated—without documentation—that early signs show the oil is “biodegrading quickly.” Not so in the southwest plume in late June, the WHOI researchers found. Their measurements of oxygen dissolved in seawater, which bacteria consume as they feed, showed that microbes had not appreciably degraded the oil during its first 5 days out of the well.”

The New York Times opines “So far, scientific information about the gulf has emerged largely from government reports and statements issued by scientists. Many additional research papers are in the works, and it could be months before a clear scientific picture emerges.

“The slow breakdown of deep oil that Dr. Camilli’s group found had a silver lining: it meant that the bacteria trying to eat the oil did not appear to have consumed an excessive amount of oxygen in the vicinity of the spill, alleviating concerns that the oxygen might have declined so much that it threatened sea life. On this point, Dr. Camilli’s research backs statements that the government has been making for weeks.”

More disagreement with government estimates comes from University of Georgia researchers. They claim that as much as 79% of the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon well could in fact remain at large in the Gulf of Mexico, where it still poses a threat to the marine ecosystem. The graphic below shows their oil budget.


Only time and more research will tell who’s estimate is closer to reality.

The Gulf oil spill is estimated at 4.9 million barrels (about 206 million gallons). Let’s put that in perspective.

“A 2003 research paper by Kvenvolden and Cooper in Geo-Marine Letters estimated that natural seeps dump 140,000 metric tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico each year –over one million barrels of crude per year. In fact, the authors estimate that 47% of all the petroleum found in the sea is from natural seeps – the largest single source, ahead of airborne pollution, ground runoff and drilling/shipping accidents,” says the Energy Tribune.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says there is an oil spill every day at Coal Oil Point, the natural seeps off Santa Barbara, California, where 20-25 tons of oil (about 7,500 gallons) have leaked from the sea floor each day for the last several hundred thousand years (at least 800 billion gallons). The Woods Hole scientist say that some oil is degraded by microorganisms and some evaporates, but most of it winds up in the ocean sediments. Could a similar process have produced the Canadian tar sands?