Five out of nine members of a scientific panel that advises the state on toxic chemicals have been fired in recent weeks, following disputes with the chemical industry and a conservative group that targets environmental laws.
"It's been gutted," said Paul Blanc, a professor of occupational medicine at UC San Francisco and one of the panel's four remaining members.
While the Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants is not well known outside of regulatory circles, its work carries clout in state environmental policy. Since its inception in 1983, the panel has evaluated more than 300 chemicals – everything from pesticides to secondhand smoke – and advised the state on how these chemicals should be regulated.
Among the dismissed members is panel chairman John Froines, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA's Institute of the Environment. Froines has served on the panel since it was founded and has been its chairman since 1998. Froines says he learned of his dismissal July 22 in a two-sentence letter from Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles.
Panel members, including Froines, have come under fire over the years when their designation of certain substances as toxic came at a cost to industry.
Most recently, Froines and other members of the panel made enemies in the chemical industry when they publicly criticized the California Department of Pesticide Regulation for its plans to approve a strawberry fumigant called methyl iodide, which the scientists said would endanger farm workers.
Froines, who said he'd received no explanation for his dismissal, praised the work of his colleagues, many of whom had served on the panel for more than a decade. "The integrity of this panel has been nothing short of impressive," he said. "Why would you destroy it?"
Craig Byus, dean of UCLA's Thomas Haider Program in Biomedical Sciences, learned of his dismissal the same day as Froines. Then, on August 20, three other panel members received similar notices, this time from the California Environmental Protection Agency. The three members were Joseph Landolph of USC, Gary Friedman of Stanford University School of Medicine, and Charles Plopper of UC Davis.
Asked about the dismissals, staffers for both Perez and California EPA said the time had come for panel members to be reappointed. Candidates for these positions, they explained, come from a list supplied by the UC Office of the President.
When the list arrived, they said, the names of Froines and others weren't on it. UC Provost Lawrence Pitt said that he couldn't speak directly to the names on the list, but that he wasn't aware of any specific instructions to remove specific panel members.
"I'm confident we have no part of it," Pitts said.
Froines and others on the panel said that while single panel members may step down and be replaced every few years or so, such widespread, simultaneous dismissals are unprecedented. "Normally what happens is we get reappointed, or the state just continues us."
"It’s curious, you’ve got this obscure panel that’s been doing a good job," said Sierra Club California director Bill Magavern, "so why suddenly the wholesale changes?"
One group taking credit for the shakeup is the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based conservative group with a history of fighting environmental legislation. The foundation has charged, in an ongoing lawsuit, that panel members shouldn't be able to serve such long terms.
Foundation attorney Damien Schiff said he believes the lawsuit served as a catalyst for the dismissals, which he called a "needed infusion of fresh blood for the panel."
The lawsuit stems, in part, from longstanding complaints from the building and transportation industries over the panel's 1998 conclusion that diesel particulate is toxic to human health. That determination formed the basis for a series of regulations of the trucking industry, which has vigorously fought the new rules.
State officials have announced the appointment of five new UC scientists to replace the departing members. Michael Kleinman, whom Froines says he admires, is an adjunct professor at the UC Irvine School of Medicine. Kleinman will be chairman of the revamped panel.
UCSF's Paul Blanc said he believes the quick turnover will get in the way of the panel's ability to do its work. "I think this will cripple the committee," he said "certainly in the short term."