EPA chief releases statement to Parliament’s Environment Select Committee

Dr Allan Freeth, Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority, today released a statement he made to Parliament’s Environment Select Committee on his dealings with Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage.

The statement deals with his authority’s independence and with the recent resignation of its Chief Scientist, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

The statement says:

I wrote to the Committee last week, in relation to an email I received from the Honourable Nick Smith, raising concerns about apparent inconsistencies in the evidence I provided to the Select Committee at the annual review hearing on 15 February 2018.

I note that the concerns were raised in the context of questions about whether there had been any discussions with the Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage, about the Environmental Protection Authority’s then Chief Scientist, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

Thank you for accepting my offer to appear again, although, contrary to media reports, I am not here to correct any previous statements.

Consistent with my communication to the Committee last week, I wish to confirm to the Committee that I did not provide any inaccurate or incorrect information in my previous evidence.

As I stated, at no time, in the period covered by, and up to the Select Committee hearing, did I have any discussions with Minister Sage about Dr Rowarth or the role and independence of the EPA.

I note that, since I communicated my offer last week to return to the Committee, Minister Sage has made a personal statement to the House correcting her answers to oral questions, which touched on whether I had been present at a meeting, which I understand took place on 29 November 2017, when she told officials that her office had received correspondence about media comments by Dr Rowarth.

The Minister said in her correcting statement that (and I quote): “The EPA’s Chief Executive was not at the meeting on 29 November. The meeting was a briefing from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) about the EPA, and I advised MfE’s Chief Executive that my office had received correspondence.”

I also wish to confirm that at no time in the period covered by, and up to the Committee hearing, had Minister Sage raised any issue with me about the scientific independence of the EPA.

The Minister’s office did send me an article that had been emailed to her by a member of the public. I acknowledged that I had seen it and offered to have a follow-up meeting with the Minister if requested. My offer of a follow-up meeting with the Minister was not acknowledged and no meeting occurred.

I regard it as entirely legitimate for the Minister’s office to send media reports to me, in the context of the responsible Minister’s oversight of the Authority. My experience up to now, has been consistent with this practice.

The Chief Executive of the Ministry for the Environment also emailed me about the article. These communications are now a matter of public record. However, I note that the questions raised with me about the EPA’s scientific independence were expressly in the context of Ministerial interference.

In conclusion, Dr Freeth said he trusts this clarifies the situation.

He assured the committee the EPA takes the issue of its independence extremely seriously. He saw no basis for concerns in regard to this status; nor did he expect concerns to be raised in the future.

Source: Environmental Protection Authority


EPA chief sticks to his story over departure of chief scientist and denies interference

EPA chief executive Allan Freeth has rejected suggestions he misled a select committee over the alleged involvement of Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage in the departure of his chief scientist.

According to a Stuff report this afternoon (HERE):

Allan Freeth reappeared in front of the Environment Committee to reiterate earlier assertions that no ministerial interference took place to oust the independent regulator’s former chief scientist Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

He also rejected suggestions she was sacked or that she was managed out, but said Rowarth had been the subject of a “vicious” and prolonged social media attack and had been unhappy for some months prior to her leaving.

Dr Rowarth resigned earlier this year.
Ms Sage told Parliament 10 days ago she had advised the EPA chief executive that her office had received correspondence expressing some concerns about media comments by the chief scientist.
“I was told the matter was in hand, there was no substantive discussion,” Sage said.

Her remarks nevertheless prompted allegations of political interference in the operations of an independent Crown Entity.

Dr Freeth has reaffirmed what he originally told MPs – he’d had “absolutely no discussions” with Ms Sage in relation to Dr Rowarth’s employment and the agency’s independence and the minister was incorrect.

Ms Sage has revised her version of what transpired and said her memory had failed her.

But Ms Sage did have a staffer send an email to Dr Freeth, which contained an article highly critical of Dr Rowarth and public comments she had made in support of irrigation.

She has since said she regretted sending the email.

According to the latest Stuff report:

Freeth said he binned the email shortly after he received it. While he admitted having a discussion with Rowarth about issues raised in the article – namely scientific approach Rowarth had used to defend irrigation – he rejected suggestions her employment was discussed.

He also rejected the assertion of National MP Nick Smith that, while in Opposition the relevant ministers (Sage and Environment Minister David Parker) “opposed the appointment of the chief scientist, were vocal about it, came to Government, wanted rid of her, and you (Freeth) did their bidding”.

“No. Or not that I’m aware of,” Freeth said.

“I was certainly unaware of Minister Sage’s views about Jacqueline.”

Dr Freeth stood by comments he made in an email to the select committee that he did have a conversation with Mr Parker in late November regarding Dr Rowarth. But this was only in the context of the EPA’s overall scientific approach.

Ms Sage earlier this week agreed Dr Rowarth had been subjected to a nasty social media campaign.

“I think it was vicious.

“I made a comment in the House I think, about some comments she had made. To the best of my memory, I have never criticised Dr Rowarth personally.”

Stuff’s earlier reports on the issue include –

Petition demands removal of protection agency scientist Dr Jacqueline Rowarth

EPA chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth resigns position to take up education role

Scientist Jacqueline Rowarth says she left EPA of own accord 

EPA Chief Scientist is leaving to return to an education role.

The Environmental Protection Authority has announced Chief Scientist Jacqueline Rowarth’s resignation.

EPA chief executive Allan Freeth says she is returning to an education role (he did not specify it) where she will also continue independent analysis and commentary on issues for New Zealand.

His statement said:

During her time with the EPA Jacqueline has built up the science team, focusing on supporting other teams with the information they need to make decisions informed by science. In particular she has encouraged staff to get involved – through speaking and writing, starting with [our internal regular feature] Science Corner. She has also spread the word externally about the role the EPA plays in New Zealand.

Jacqueline’s last day of employment with the EPA as Chief Scientist will be Friday 2 March 2018. However, Jacqueline has agreed to undertake specific research/project work for EPA for up to two months after her employment with the EPA ends. The Executive Team wishes her all the best for her future work.

AgScience’s quick Google search found the announcement reported only by Stuff (here) and Radio New Zealand (here).

It was not recorded on the Scoop website, where EPA statements are usually posted.

The Radio NZ report described Dr Rowarth as the EPA’s “controversial chief scientist”.

It also said Dr Freeth would not be interviewed about the resignation.

EPA spokesperson Diane Robinson said: “We don’t have any further comment beyond the statement on our website”.

Dr Rowarth drew criticism late last year after describing irrigation as a “great boon” to the environment.

She said irrigation helped farmers remain profitable, and they then invested that money in environmental projects.

Conservationists described those comments as “bizarre”, while the government said irrigation caused enormous environmental damage.

This presumably was a reference to reasons given for a change of government policy on irrigation schemes after the general election.

The new Labour-led Government announced it was reversing the previous government’s policy of subsidising big irrigation schemes around the country.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said that was because of the enormous environmental damage.

Dr Rowarth started her EPA job in October 2016.

Scientists are cautioned against including personal attacks in debates

Scientists have been advised to conduct their debates according to the science , not the personalities, in a letter sent by the Association of Scientists.

The letter to members reminded them of the Royal Society’s Code of Professional Standards and Ethics that say members must try to obtain and present facts and interpretations in an objective and open manner.

Your editor could  find no mention of the letter on the association’s website this morning (although the search was a quick one).

According to a Radio New Zealand report (HERE) the reminder of the rules followed Jacqueline Rowarth from the Environmental Protection Agency and soil scientist Doug Edmeades taking part in a radio discussion about whether prominent freshwater ecologist Mike Joy should be labelled an extremist.

RNZ said Dr Rowarth and Dr Edmeades appeared on Jamie Mackay’s radio show The Country last month as part of a panel discussion entitled: ‘Is Dr Mike Joy an extremist or does he have a point?

It also mentioned Dr Edmeades’ opinion piece titled ‘Is Mike Joy a biased scientist?

According to RNZ, the president of the Association of Scientists, Craig Stevens said there had been a lot of concern from members about scientists being attacked and not the science.

“In this particular area we’re talking about freshwater and land use.

“It’s an issue that’s incredibly important for New Zealand from a number of perspectives.

“We were concerned that some of this was proceeding in the media in a way that was not helpful for getting the facts across.”

The RNZ report includes comments on the association’s letter from Dr Joy and Dr Edmeades.

Jacqueline Rowarth declined to comment.


Greens raise questions in Parliament about Waikato River quality remarks

The quality of the Waikato River’s fresh water and remarks about the river by Jacqueline Rowarth this week became the subject of questions in Parliament. 

Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty kicked things off with a question to Environment Minister Nick Smtih: did he agree with the comment from Dr Rowarth, the Environmental Protection Authority’s Chief Scientist, that the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world?

In reply, Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth’s comments were made before she took up her position with the EPA, when she was a professor at Waikato University.

More important to the environmental debate that has been triggered by her comments, she had advised him that her comments were taken out of context.

He explained:

Water quality in the Waikato is superb and amongst the very best in the world in the upper reaches, like around Huka Falls, but deteriorates in the lower reaches due to nutrients, pathogens, and sedimentation, particularly below the confluence of the Waipā River.

The data shows that in the lower reaches these problems have been increasing in recent decades, and steps are required to reverse those trends. That is why this Government has invested over $300 million in its clean-up.

I do note the EPA does not have a role in the regulation of water quality, and its principal function is the regulation of hazardous substances and new organisms.

Delahunty followed up, asking if Dr Smith considered the comments of the EPA’s new chief scientist showed a robust understanding of science and of a waterway that has more than $8 million of Government funding dedicated to cleaning it up because it is so seriously polluted?

In reply, Smith said the Government is spending a lot more than $8 million; it is spending over $300 million (“such is the importance of Lake Taupō and the Waikato River to this Government”).

“In respect of this particular individual, I think the member should be cautious of taking her comments out of context, because, actually, in the upper reaches, the water quality is very good at Huka Falls, and it would be wrong for the Green Party to run that down.”

Delahunty then drew attention to the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, comprising 400 freshwater scientists and professionals. In light of the way it disputed Dr Rowarth’s full claims, “should we have faith that the EPA is able to make good decisions about hazardous chemicals and water and protect our environment?”

Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth, a new appointment to the EPA, is a well-qualified scientist. The decision as to her appointment had been made independently by the EPA, “and I think this House should be cautious of being openly critical of neutral public servants, which is the new role she has, after completing her term as a professor at Waikato University”.

Remarks about Waikato River spark petition – and revitalise concerns about silent scientists

The need for more scientists to be heard in public, not fewer, has been spotlighted by the row over Jacqueline Rowarth’s remarks about the Waikato River being one of the world’s five cleanest reveals, says Shaun Hendy.

Dr Rowarth has just taken up her post as chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority.

At a Primary Land Users Group meeting on October 3, she said the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest in the world, based on the OECD data she was using.

The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society said the claims were false and were based on outdated data and factual errors. Her analysis was based on OECD river nitrate data from 2002-2004, the society said, whereas the most up-to-date (for 2011) showed the Waikato had dropping from its 5 per cent ranking in 2002-2004 to a 24 per cent ranking.

A Dunedin environmental contractor and Green Party supporter, Matt Thomson, has followed up by launching a petition demanding Dr Rowarth be removed from her position. His reason, reportedly, was mainly to “rark things up” and he was not sure what he would do if the petition gained traction.

But Dr Rowarth had been appointed to a  new job at the EPA although “she was already sympathetic to the farming industry”.

Shaun Hendy, director of the Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence, and a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, has set out his thoughts in an article for Spinoff.

When more than 5,000 people became sick thanks to the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply in August, science experts “made themselves rather scarce”, he writes..

When Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chair, Fenton Wilson, was asked by Radio New Zealand about his Council’s reports concerning the woefully unhealthy state of the nearby Tukituki river, he said “I don’t have any of that information to hand.” When it was put to him that recent flooding may have driven contaminated water into one of the town’s aquifers, Wilson speculated that “speculation is not helpful at this time”.

Did we really not have any scientists who could speak knowledgably on whether contaminated surface water could have gotten into Havelock North’s groundwater?

Remarkably, science confirms that remnant populations of such scientists do still reside in New Zealand. They work for the government, and as I wrote in Silencing Science earlier this year, they are the sorts of experts we almost never hear from.

Dr Rowarth, previously a professor of agribusiness at the University of Waikato, has been employed by the  EPA to use her “expertise to explain our science, so people can have trust and confidence in the decisions we make”, according to EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth.

Professor Hendy comments:

This may have sounded like a good plan at the time, but Rowarth’s stance on water quality has had other experts increasingly alarmed.

New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society president Marc Schallenberg said that Rowarth’s “comments concerning the condition of the Waikato River are not only false, but distract from the important work being done to improve water quality in New Zealand”.

Bryce Cooper, a water quality expert at NIWA, said, “Water quality in its [the Waikato River’s] lower reaches ranks in the bottom half of 500 sites nationally for key indicators such as nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli (a measure of faecal contamination) and water clarity.”

If you are predisposed to think that the science of tides was fabricated 400 years ago in preparation for Project Fear, then you may also be tempted to dismiss these water quality experts as having a vested interest in spreading alarm in order to keep themselves employed.

But if you actually want to be better informed about our rivers, you do need to hear from scientists like Cooper and Schallenberg – and, yes, Rowarth too. Because this is how science works. Scientists make claims, present their evidence, and wait for the judgement of their peers.

Better that we know how Rowarth views the evidence than not. Now those views are in the open, they can be scrutinised and critiqued.

Professor Hendy noted that when Dr Rowarth was asked to comment on her views by Radio New Zealand, the EPA replied, saying, “it would be inappropriate for her to comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role.”

In Silencing Science he complained that  the last thing a government scientist is allowed to do is speak about matters actually affecting the public.

But (as he muses) who needs an expert when helpful prime ministers can always find you another with a different point of view?