Democrats Search for Cheney Role in Fish Kill

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, August 1, 2007 (ENS) House Democrats held a lengthy hearing Tuesday to probe evidence that Bush administration officials improperly meddled with several decisions affecting endangered species, but they failed to find the smoking gun directly linking Vice President Dick Cheney to a controversial decision that contributed to the largest fish kill in U.S. history.

Vice President Dick Cheney (Photo courtesy The White House)
The House Resources Committee is investigating allegations of Cheney's involvement in the Klamath fish kill that surfaced in a "Washington Post" story in June. A former Interior Department official told the paper the vice president pressured the agency to maintain irrigation flows to farmers despite federal obligations to balance agricultural interests with the water needs of three endangered fish species and the tribal water rights of Native Americans.

Federal officials subsequently decided in April 2002 to divert water for farmers, reversing a past policy and ignoring the objections of federal biologists tasked with upholding the Endangered Species Act.

The diversion was in part responsible for a fish kill that left some 70,000 salmon dead near the California-Oregon border.

In 2004, the Interior Department's Inspector General investigated allegations that Karl Rove interfered with federal officials to enact the controversial decision, but found no evidence of political influence by the White House political advisor.

The investigation did not consider Cheney, an Interior official told the House Natural Resources Committee, but would have if information about his possible influence had been known at the time,

"We would have followed any tracks made available to us," said Interior's Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, who said her office would specifically have examined Cheney's involvement and impact on Interior employees.

"In the end, we don't know what we don't know," Kendall said.

Dead fish lined the banks of the Klamath River for miles after water was diverted for irrigation in 2002. (Photo credit unknown)
Michael Kelly, a former fisheries biologist who worked on the Klamath issue, told the committee he knew Cheney had been briefed on the plan, but had no direct evidence of any interference by the vice president.

"I was aware that President [George W.] Bush had declared he'd do everything he could to get water to the farms," Kelly told the committee, adding that he knew his superiors were being pressured to speed up assessments and tilt the science to favor the farmers.

"I naively believed that I was shielded from such pressure," said Kelly, who explained that he was pressured to endorse a revised 10 year plan for managing Klamath flows that supported diverting water from the imperiled fish species to benefit agricultural interests.

"I was essentially asked to support a conclusion that made as much sense as 1+1=3," Kelly said

The biological opinion underlying the plan was "completely bogus and illegal," said Kelly who noted that a federal court subsequently found the opinion violated the Endangered Species Act.

Committee Chairman Nick Rahall called the Klamath situation "a fiasco" and criticized Cheney and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for not appearing before the committee.

"I will not pretend to be surprised [Cheney] declined our invitation," Rahall told colleagues. "But I am obliged to express disappointment at the difficulty we have had in trying to learn the truth and conduct basic oversight over an agency and an administration that have made secrecy and lack of accountability hallmarks of their tenure."

Klamath Basin farmers have watched their fields wither during the drought years. (Photo ©Sierra Times)
Republicans on the committee said Democrats were chasing a red herring.

"There was no improper political meddling in the Klamath decision-making process and independent peer reviewed science trumped all in the end," said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican.

She criticized Rahall for focusing on "loose allegations and inferences about Cheney" and for playing "an unproductive blame game."

Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, also warned the hearing could unsettle ongoing negotiations by stakeholders in the Klamath.

"Anyone who is serious about a comprehensive resolution for the Klamath Basin would not have called this hearing, especially at this time," said Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican. "It runs the risk of aborting a mediated settlement process that involves 26 parties in the basin who in the past would have been at the throats."

Democrats dismissed such concerns and spent much of the seven hour hearing discussing broader allegations of political interference by administration officials.

"When it comes to political interference and ethical lapses at the department, the Klamath River is just the tip of the iceberg," Rahall said, noting recent controversy surrounding the actions of former Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald.

A recent Interior Inspector General report detailed interference by MacDonald with scientific reports on a slew of endangered and threatened species, including sage grouse, prairie dogs, the California tiger salamander, and Delta smelt fish. MacDonald repeatedly pressed scientists to downplay risks to species and in several instances simply ignored their findings.

Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia chairs the House Resources Committee (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Federal judges have already rejected decisions influenced by MacDonald, including a move to downgrade protections for the endangered Santa Barbara and Sonoma salamanders.

Concern about meddling by MacDonald prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to announce last month that it will revisit eight endangered species decisions she may have improperly influenced.

Kendall told the committee that MacDonald's actions have "cast a vast cloud over the Department's scientific integrity."

MacDonald's tenure at the agency has the potential to affect more than just the eight decisions the Interior Department has already pledged to review, Kendall added.

"Other decisions may be at risk for legal challenge simply by virtue of Ms. MacDonald's personal involvement," Kendall said.

Rahall said he has "little confidence" in the department's ability to impartially review MacDonald's influence.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall said his agency could be trusted to make decisions based on science, not politics.

"Neither I nor the Interior Department will tolerate instances in which scientific soundness and integrity have been compromised," he told the committee.

But Rahall remained unconvinced.

He said, "I find it difficult to see how we can trust any decision made in an agency that has, time and again, betrayed its own career scientists, repeatedly failed to hold its appointees to ethical standards and so callously disregarded its mission for the sake of political gain."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.