More Trouble for NOAA and Its Director: A Document Shredding Party to Conceal Evidence


We’ve noted here before that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco should resign. But new revelations out of New England illustrate that this should happen not tomorrow or next week but right now.

Here on the Gulf Coast, NOAA and its director Jane Lubchenco have become a joke on par with post-Katrina FEMA and its hapless director Michael Brown. It has certainly taken some doing getting down to the level of incompetence of Mr. Brown, or “Brownie” as President Bush called him in the midst of the Katrina debacle. Ms. Lubchenco began her rapid descent when NOAA joined with BP in lowballing the initial oil-spill flow estimates. Remember, it was NOAA that did BP the “favor” of coming up with the BP-friendly estimates. And things just got worse from there.

When the EPA needed to justify using toxic dispersant, agency officials didn’t have to look far to find somebody (Ms. Lubchenco) willing to back that BP-friendly plan. The Pulitzer-winning non-profit ProPublica website reported in August that during the dispersant-use approval process “…representatives of the EPA and NOAA also spoke on bioaccumulation, downplaying fears that the chemicals in dispersants would accumulate in aquatic life and that toxicity would be magnified higher up in the Gulf food chain. They acknowledged, however, that this, too, should have been considered beforehand.”

Well, no kidding. But we’re quickly learning that NOAA’s troubles go well beyond conspiring with BP as it committed what amounts to environmental terrorism.

In New England, a variety of leaders are demanding Ms. Lubchenco resign over bungled fishing regulation and the scandalous case of Dale Jones, the NOAA law enforcement official under fire for conducting a Watergate-style shredding party. Critics of the agency say Mr. Jones was clearly covering up systematic harassment of independent fishing operations and who knows what else. Many local fishing families see the harassment as part of Ms. Lubchenco’s plan to force a fishing quota program, which has been blasted because it tends to force out small operators in favor of large companies.

Perhaps due to the fawning mainstream-media welcome Ms. Lubchenco received upon leaving academia to join the Obama Administration, there’s been scant coverage of this particular NOAA scandal. It’s been the norm during this disaster to see local news outlets staying focused on stories that larger media organizations only drop in on. The local Gloucester Daily Times, a 10,000 circulation paper, has led the way and broke the most recent stories about the embattled agency.

However, on Feb. 16, CBS News weighed in with an absolutely scathing report profiling an agency (NOAA) run amok, including fining one fisherman “…$19,000 for catching about 20 extra codfish – nearly three years after he caught them.” Consequently, his business went under.

According to the Daily Times, federal investigators now say Mr. Jones was trying to conceal information from U.S. Inspector General Todd Zinser. According to the newspaper, the shredding incident was clearly not the “housekeeping” exercise that NOAA claimed, but actually “destroyed 75 percent to 80 percent of the files in Jones’ office.” We can only guess what agency officials are hiding, and if they will do the same thing in the face of a federal investigation into what they are doing, and have done, in the Gulf?

Now any other agency head worth his or her salt would have fired Mr. Jones on the spot for such a huge lapse in judgment. But that didn’t happen. No. Instead, he has been re-assigned to a special “fishing program” NOAA has going in the Gulf – and apparently Mr. Jones will make an annual salary of $152,000. Doesn’t that sound a little fishy to you?

The money from the questionable fines was, according to newspaper reports, “…used by regulators to buy more cars (202) than agents (172) and for trips to fishing conferences in exotic locales such as Australia, Malaysia and Norway. It was also used to purchase a $300,000 ‘luxury vessel’ used by government employees for ‘fishing trips.’”

Around the Gulf, it’s hard to say at this point what single NOAA gaffe is the “most damaging.” Unfortunately, that remains to be seen and may involve a lot of people getting sick or even dying from the agency’s BP-friendly decisions. There is, however, a front-runner for most damaging: the “Mission Accomplished” moment came close when the agency’s “report” set loose serial BP-enabler and Obama energy adviser Carol Browner to run around every TV news studio she could find to declare the “vast majority” of BP oil was gone. She backed off that eventually, but quietly and the momentum for real change in the Gulf slowed.

Ms. Lubchenco’s series of missteps and failures in handling the spill response has eroded public trust in the government’s ability to oversee recovery and restoration efforts. Like Carol Browner, who is resigning after repeatedly downplaying the spill’s impact, it’s time for Ms. Lubchenco to go.

Here are some of her more notable mistakes and professional improprieties that we’ve previously reported on:

1. What Oil Plume?: In mid-May 2010, Lubchenco questioned the existence of a massive sub-sea oil plume, describing media reports covering the plume as “misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate.” (see She also tried to stop researchers from going public with the plume discovery, spurring allegations of a government coverup. As reported by the St. Petersburg Times (Aug. 10, 2010): “Lubchenco confirmed Monday that her agency told USF and other academic institutions involved in the study of undersea plumes that they should hold off talking so openly about it.” (see It is now common knowledge that the plume did, in fact, exist.

2. “Vast Majority of Oil Is Gone”: In early August 2010, Lubchenco and energy adviser Carol Browner announced that the vast majority of the oil had simply disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico. Those claims, of course, have since been discredited by a host of different sources.

3. Impeding Turtle Rescue: NOAA’s mishandling of sea turtle rescue efforts has been widely publicized and soundly criticized. According to Capt. Al Walker (and a number of other charter boat captains and turtle doctors), there were only FIVE boats deployed for the duration of the spill response to save what NOAA estimated to be thousands of sea turtles. He describes NOAA’s rescue efforts as “completely inadequate.” The fact that BP will be fined $50,000 for each dead turtle makes many of us wonder if the government-BP response was setup to fail. “They didn’t want us out there rescuing turtles and finding dead ones,” says Capt. Walker. He is fighting for a congressional hearing on the matter.

4. Mischaracterized Drilling Safety Report: In November 2010, Lubchenco and energy adviser Carol Browner were involved in misrepresenting a drilling safety report “in a way that made it falsely appear that scientists and experts supported the administration’s six-month ban on new deep-water drilling,” as reported by the Associated Press. Ms. Lubchenco “contributed to the public’s perception” that the drilling safety report “was more exact than it was by emphasizing peer review.” (see

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough of Ms. Lubchenco’s nonsense.

Mr. Obama, this is not the kind of government you promised the American people when we supported your vision of hope. Document shredding and destroying lives while government officials live it up? Sir, we need to find some hope in the Gulf, and it should begin with somebody who has a hope of restoring some credibility to NOAA.

Here’s the scathing CBS New report:

Here’s an editorial from the Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times calling for a special prosecutor while outlining NOAA’s shortcomings, including details of the shredding-party investigation:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2010 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Thank you for covering this–I am archiving these stories and I really appreciate the work you have done on this blog, in order to contribute a wider understanding of the incestuous ties between Big Oil and our Government.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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