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Legislators Urge Governor to Stand Up to Corporate Abuse

Science panel member removed following apparent cruise industry pressure

Six state legislators sent a letter to Gov. Sean Parnell today to protest the sudden removal of Dr. Gershon Cohen from a state science advisory panel, and to urge the governor to reinstate Cohen and to exercise fair and consistent practices regarding the rest of the panel.

Senators Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French (both D-Anchorage), House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau), and Representatives Berta Gardner, Mike Doogan and Les Gara (all D-Anchorage) believe Cohen may have fallen victim to cruise industry bullying tactics, and have asked the governor to correct the situation.

The Department of Environmental Conservation began recruiting members for the 11-member cruise ship science advisory panel in November 2009. Cohen applied and was selected, and the committee is scheduled to begin meetings this month.  Just three weeks after having been approved, Dr. Cohen was informed by Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig that he was being removed from the panel, because he was perceived as a clean water "advocate." The decision apparently followed pressure from the cruise ship industry.

"Removing a well-qualified scientist from this panel simply because he exercised his First Amendment rights is simply unacceptable," Wielechowski said.

Cohen is highly qualified to serve on the science panel. He has a Masters Degree in Molecular Biology and a PhD in Environmental Policy.  His letter of appointment from the state read in part: "The science advisory panel will benefit greatly from your experience with cruise ship wastewater regulation and legislation."

"There's simply no justification for Dr. Cohen's removal from the panel," French said. "One panel member is an industry attorney. Someone is going to have to come up with a better reason than 'advocacy,' and I'd like to see it in writing."

According to Cohen, Commissioner Hartig told him he'd received pressure from the cruise industry, and that Hartig had now changed his mind, doubting Cohen could be unbiased.

"This sets a very bad precedent," Kerttula said, "and it is disappointing to see the state behave in this manner."

A copy of the letter follows for further details.


ALASKA STATE LEGISLATURE

January 26, 2009

Governor Parnell
Alaska State Capitol
Third Floor
Juneau, AK 99801

Dear Governor Parnell:

We are writing to urge you to correct a troubling abuse of power and to stand up for the integrity of an honorable Alaskan.

We have received information that suggests corporate influence and pressure prompted a decision by the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conversation to remove Dr. Gershon Cohen from the Cruiseship Wastewater Discharge Science Advisory Panel.

As you know, Alaskan voters passed a citizen's initiative in 2006 requiring cruise ships to greatly reduce pollutants from wastewater discharges in Alaska waters.  Last year the Legislature passed HB 134 to help implement this initiative.  As part of HB 134, the Legislature established a science advisory panel to evaluate technical and economic issues associated with the application of wastewater technologies to cruise ships.

On Dec. 23, 2009, Mr. Cohen, PhD, was appointed by your Administration to serve on this panel.  Mr. Cohen is uniquely qualified to serve because of his extensive background and research in this area.  Your administration recognized these qualifications in its letter of appointment, stating "The science advisory panel will benefit greatly from your experience with cruise ship wastewater regulation and legislation."

We have recently been advised that DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig removed Dr. Cohen from the panel after members of the cruise industry complained about his appointment. Apparently, the cruise ship companies were concerned about Mr. Cohen's previous advocacy for stringent wastewater standards.  Our understanding is that Commissioner Hartig then informed Mr. Cohen he had been removed from the panel, because, in commissioner's words, Mr. Cohen would be "an advocate" for clean water.  This is ironic because of the presence on the panel of others with the distinct responsibility of advocating on behalf of the cruise lines.     

If what we have been advised is accurate, this concerns us greatly. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that corporations and special interests can spend unlimited amounts in elections under the guise of the right to "free speech," a decision to terminate Dr. Cohen from this panel because he may exercise his First Amendment rights is very troubling.

We believe that citizens who volunteer their time to help the state fulfill its duty to maintain a livable environment should be treated with dignity and respect.  The science panel should be balanced and include scientists and other individuals with the expertise to understand complex water quality and treatment issues and not be dominated by the cruise ship industry.  Allowing the cruise ship industry to dictate the membership of the science panel is deeply troubling.  Accordingly we are asking for a public explanation for Mr. Cohen's removal from the science panel.  Moreover, in the absence of a valid reason for the removal of Mr. Cohen (and we are unaware of such a reason) we urge you to reverse this decision and to reinstate Mr. Cohen.     

Sincerely,

Senator Bill Wielechowski                Senator Hollis French

Representative Beth Kertulla                Representative Les Gara

Representative Berta Gardner                Representative Mike Doogan

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