Activist Journalism Is Attempting to Pollute Science on Clean Air Regulations

Published April 12, 2023

If there’s a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, its a renewed focus on the importance of science in policy-making. The credibility of our scientific institutions are essential to every aspect of our lives. 

Yet, perhaps because of their critical importance, those institutions remain vulnerable to manipulation by special interests. 

Consider the latest development in a long-running effort to prevent sugar cane farmers in Florida from continuing their use of prescribed pre-harvest burns. 

The efficient procedure is tightly regulated by overlapping federal and state laws and rules. The regulations take into account measured wind speed, direction, atmospheric conditions and even dictate when such burns can take place based on location near any population. Nonetheless, activists are seeking a ban, despite consistent regulatory science validating the safety of the air quality near the farms. 

Now, a loosely-knit group of activist reporters and a UC Berkeley educated epidemiologist have launched a bizarre effort to subvert the well-established regulatory science which narrowly permits pre-harvest burns. But first, some context.

In 2015, Earthjustice, a radical California environmental group, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the practice in Florida. The Obama administration was not persuaded.

Activists have regularly lobbied congress as well as Florida lawmakers to further restrict, if not totally ban the regulated burns.  Appropriate, if not overly precautionary restrictions have been added, but burns remain legal and safe at both the federal and state of Florida level.

In 2019, a Florida accident injury law firm advised by President Biden’s brother, Frank, filed a lawsuit to ban the practice. “Our request is simple, and it’s easily accomplished: Stop burning the cane,” Frank Biden said. 

A judge dismissed that case with prejudice last year. As the defendants summed it up: “the case against air quality in the farming region was without merit. We believed the science, data and regulations that support our work every day would show that the air quality in the Glades is ‘good’ – the highest quality under federal regulations.”

Indeed, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s county-by-county analysis of air pollution shows that the counties where the fields are located are cleaner than Florida’s overall average. 

At every turn, activists failed to produce the science to persuade regulators in Democrat (and Republican) administrations, the courts, as well as the federal and Florida legislatures, to ban pre-harvest burns.

With apparently nowhere else on earth to turn, the activists turned to NASA, the space agency. 

The saga begins with a series of articles in the Palm Beach Post, prepared in partnership with ProPublica, a Ralph Nader-styled advocacy group, which, in my opinion, cloaks its bias behind a veneer of “investigative journalism.” The model of partnering with a newspaper has been a huge success, in terms of convincing financially strapped news organizations to at least partially outsource reporting to an outside advocacy organization with an obvious ideological slant.

A Berkeley educated epidemiologist, Sheryl Magzamen, now an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, advised the advocacy journalism venture in their reporting.

That reporting led to Magzamen receiving a grant from NASA to use cheap, off-the-shelf PurpleAir sensors to monitor the air near the farms. 

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to reveal the anti-science, advocacy-driven strategy. Why would a researcher ask NASA, an entity not known for frugality, to fund the use of low-cost air monitors to duplicate the work of legitimate regulatory-quality monitors? Because the researchers want a different outcome.

The use of PurpleAir Monitors almost guarantees the alarming outcomes the activists are seeking. In fact, EPA scientists say the PurpleAir devices are “biased” because “they consistently overpredict fine particle concentrations in most locations” when compared to “the regulatory-grade monitors that are operated in the same location.”

Lulu Ramadan, the reporter at the center of the Pro-Publica/ Palm Beach Post/ Magzman partnership, touted the NASA grant, “The study is poised to be the most comprehensive of its kind in Florida’s sugar region.” Nowhere in the pseudo-independent cheerleading reporting did the article ask the obvious question about the study— regarding its unorthodox choice of measurement equipment.

What’s wrong with PurpleAir monitors? According to multiple reports, its data can be unreliable and skewed by nearby air-conditions and humidity, like in Florida. A 2020 article in The Verge warned “[The sensors] can miss very small particles or confuse water droplets as particles when there’s high humidity. A 2021 SFGate article raised similar concerns from a local health official:

“[A San Francisco public health official] said that fog and humidity can sometimes affect the local sensors, such as PurpleAir’s, and they don’t always distinguish between small particulate matter, like smoke, and larger particulate matter, like road dust or sea salt. “If someone is living next to a particular air source, it might skew the reading,” Richardson said.

Had the question been asked, it would have exposed the attempt to co-opt the legitimacy of NASA to validate a study designed with the intent of using shoddy equipment as the basis for moving regulatory goalposts and undermining the established science used by the EPA and Florida regulators. 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with challenging government data— in fact— it should be encouraged! However, when doing so, it is incumbent on scientists – and the taxpayer funded scientific grant-making agencies, to deploy more accurate, not less accurate, technology when attempting to topple existing standards. 

The playbook is nothing new: First try to use the best science to change the rules and regulations. If the science isn’t persuasive, use plaintiffs lawyers to achieve the policy goal. If that fails, work with ideologically aligned organizations to replace independent reporting with the aligned storyline. 

What is apparently novel is the audacity to use cheap and faulty technology, paid for by an agency (NASA) operating outside its primary function, to undermine the regulatory science of an agency (EPA) operating in the center of its lane. 

The lesson of the last few years is clear. It is essential that the best science guides policy-making. We must be vigilant in calling out ideologically-driven junk-science, which by definition, leads to bad outcomes for us all.