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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Special Investigations Unit: Broken Government - Scorched Earth
Aired March 8, 2008 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MILES O'BRIEN, HOST: Maybe the last things on earth you would expect to find a fierce political fight over are values like clean air and clean water. But the corporate lobbying and bitter partisanship in Washington have dramatically changed the political environment. And our broken government is not only failing to protect the environment, even supposed solutions turn out to do more harm than good.
Take corn ethanol for example. An energy source embraced by nearly all this year's presidential hopefuls, costing taxpayer dollars and by many accounts, it won't work.
BILL COUSER, CORN FARMER: This is perfect corn growing country. It doesn't get any better than this.
O'BRIEN: That's Bill Couser, life-long corn farmer and lately ethanol tycoon. He took me to some of the few stalks still standing this time of year.
COUSER: Now the free market is rewarding us for the job we're doing.
O'BRIEN: Well, actually it's not so free. As a matter of fact, you and I are fueling the fuel from corn frenzy with as much as $17 billion a year in government subsidies; even though corn ethanol is not as clean, efficient, or practical as the politicians claim. And what's worse, even the biggest corn ethanol advocates agree it won't make a dent in our addiction to foreign oil; more on that in a bit.
Let's go to the ethanol plant. Couser is a founder and chairman of this $90 million ethanol plant in his hometown of Nevada, Iowa.
COUSER: This is what we hope people will refer to as the Kuwait of the Midwest.
O'BRIEN: The place is humming; 24/7, 365. Trucks roll in, drop their loads of Iowa gold. Nationwide, there are now 139 corn ethanol plants and they are maxed out; distilling more than 6 billion gallons of the stuff every year.
Nearly every drop loaded onto freight cars and sent down the line to be mixed in with gasoline.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The plant is making money right now. O'BRIEN: The plant is profitable.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah.
O'BRIEN: You don't want to say?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's profitable.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Everything about ethanol is good, good, good.
O'BRIEN: I went to Washington and sat down with Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa corn farmer himself.
GRASSLEY: President Bush and I have worked together very closely --
O'BRIEN: He told me he's been pushing for your tax dollars to kick start ethanol.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The panic is real.
O'BRIEN: Ever since the oil crises of the mid and late '70s.
GRASSLEY: The people filling up their tank, would they rather have the American farmer and the American worker have that money or would they rather to give it to some Arab sheikh to shoot back at us in the war on terror? I think they would choose to leave the money in America.
O'BRIEN: Ethanol is one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats agree.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D) HOUSE SPEAKER: We will send our energy dollars to the Midwest, not the Middle East.
O'BRIEN: And the ethanol cause has a sure-fire insurance policy that renews every four years.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to give you the fight.
O'BRIEN: The Iowa caucuses. Where candidates in both parties stand in line to kneel at the altar of --
RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: Ethanol.
OBAMA: Corn-based ethanol.
MITT ROMNEY, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ethanol.
JOHN EDWARDS, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Corn ethanol.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to start here with corn.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Develop the ethanol necessary.
O'BRIEN: All of this is driving energy policy in Washington these days. In December, the politicians upped the ante big-time, setting an annual goal of 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels in the U.S. by 2022.
BUSH: This is a good bill.
O'BRIEN: 15 billion of that from corn ethanol. More than doubling what is produced now, costing you, the taxpayer, an additional $5 billion in subsidies.
BUSH: And I'm pleased to sign it.
O'BRIEN: Could this be the booming business if it weren't for the subsidies?
BOB DINNEEN, ETHANOL LOBBYIST: No. Government has a very important role to play here.
O'BRIEN: That's ethanol lobbyist, Bob Dinneen. In Washington, they call him Reverend Renewable.
DINNEEN: The government is trying to move investment from petroleum into more domestically produced renewable, more sustainable technologies like ethanol. And it's a good investment.
O'BRIEN: But is it really?
KEN COOK, ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP: I think what we're really doing is misleading people into thinking that we're heading for the solution when in fact we're not.
O'BRIEN: Agriculture policy expert, Ken Cook says ethanol from corn is not all it's cracked up to be.
COOK: When you look at what goes into producing ethanol, it's not nearly as clean as it sounds.
O'BRIEN: Bill Couser's distillery, like most corn ethanol plants in America, runs on coil, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter of them all. And farmers use huge amounts of fertilizer to grow corn. The fertilizer runs off to the streams, then to the Mississippi river and into the Gulf of Mexico. Where researchers say it's enlarging a dead zone. No shrimp. No plants. Nothing.
And cars that run on the 85 percent ethanol gasoline mix, known a E-85, will burn 20 percent to 30 percent more fuel.
COOK: So, even though you're putting a so-called green fuel in your tank, you're having to put more of it in.
O'BRIEN: But that may be the least of it. All varieties of ethanol will simply not be enough to satisfy our voracious energy appetite. Not even close. PROF. DAVID PIMENTEL, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: You'll never produce enough ethanol from corn to make a dent in the United States' oil consumption.
O'BRIEN: That's Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University. He says if every last ear of corn grown in America were used for ethanol, it would reduce our oil consumption by only 7 percent.
PIMENTEL: So here you've got 14 major inputs.
O'BRIEN: Pimentel says when you consider the energy it takes to produce corn ethanol, it is actually very inefficient.
PIMENTEL: It takes 29 percent more fossil energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than you actually get out.
O'BRIEN: Bob Dinneen disputes Professor Pimentel's arithmetic and insists ethanol is energy positive and improving.
DINNEEN: Ethanol is absolutely moving in the right direction and more importantly, we're becoming more efficient with every single plant that opens up.
O'BRIEN: They're opening up at a rate of one every two weeks and you are footing a big part of the bill with billions in tax subsidies for a fuel that still pollutes the environment and does little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
COOK: We have gone to political leaders and gone to their staffs and said, "Look, you recognize that there are environmental problems that ought to be dealt with as we grow this ethanol industry, right?" And they say yes. Are you going to do something about it. They say no. Why not? Because they don't want to face the wrath of the corn lobby.
O'BRIEN: so this is about power politics?
COOK: Totally about power politics.
O'BRIEN: But those lobbyists in Washington may be surprised to hear what Bill Couser told me before I left Iowa. When I asked him if all those billions in corn subsidies seem fair?
COUSER: We have to revisit it. We definitely have to look at it. I'm a taxpayer too.
O'BRIEN: So you would agree that maybe it's time to rethink all these subsidies?
COUSER: Sure, it is. But this is a start hopefully to a world solution. Some day, is that 50 years, is that 100 years from now? I don't know. But we have to start some day. And this is the day to start.
O'BRIEN: Up next, a company with a chronic pollution problem.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has been the worst environmental issue in the United States.
O'BRIEN: And why you would be paying to clean up their mess.
And later, Washington is spending your money to save this cute critter. So why is it spending money to doom it?
O'BRIEN: And now the story of a company that made big messes for more than 100 years all across the country, possibly leaving you and me to pay for much of the cleanup. And it now wants permission to pollute even more. It's all perfectly legal, and that is the real problem.
In El Paso, there is no missing it. That smokestack is 70 stories; it would dwarf the Washington monument. A lot of folks here see it as a towering monument to what is wrong with our government and our corporations.
SEN. ELIOT SHAPLEIGH, TEXAS: I think this has been the worst environmental issue really in the United States when you look at what's happened with ASARCO.
O'BRIEN: I began my journey with Texas State Senator Elliott Shapleigh who grew up and still lives in the shadow of the century ASARCO Copper Smelter.
SHAPLEIGH: It looked like there was a lava flow. It would be bright red at night, they dump it on the ground here.
O'BRIEN: That's kind eerie.
He walked me around the neighborhood and tried to explain what life has week here when the stack was belching out its acrid yellow smoke.
SHAPLEIGH: When it touched your tongue, it turned to acids. It was like swallowing acid and the place stunk consistently of sulfur.
O'BRIEN: The smelter sits right on the Mexican border. The slums of Boraz a stone's throw away. 2.5 million people live within 30 miles of the big stack.
Not a good place for a smelter, is it?
SHAPLEIGH: The worst place in my view.
O'BRIEN: Especially when you consider what is in the pungent smoke; sulfur dioxide, arsenic, cadmium, zinc and lead, lots of lead; an inevitable by-product of copper smelting.
The ASARCO smelter has been shut down since 1999; mothballed when the bottom dropped out of the copper market. But with copper prices now through the roof, the company is seeking permission to fire up the furnaces once again and pump nearly five tons of lead through that stack each year.
DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN, MOUNT SINAI SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: I'd be very deeply concerned about this because of it.
O'BRIEN: Philip is one of the nation's leading experts on lead poisoning. For him, it all began in El Paso 30 years ago when he led the first government study of the ASARCO smelter, its lead footprint and its effect on children.
LANDRIGAN: We found incredibly close correlations between levels of lead in dust, levels of lead in soil, levels of lead in children's blood. And it was very clear to us that the lead in the dust and the lead in the soil had come directly from the smelter.
O'BRIEN: Lead is an insidious health threat. We now know even the slightest amount causes permanent brain damage; irreversibly reducing a person's IQ, robbing children of their potential.
JOE PINON, EL PASO PHARMACIST: Lead will not kill necessarily the person but it will kill a great degree of the intelligence that you might have had if you weren't exposed to it.
O'BRIEN: Pharmacist Joe Pinon is also now an expert on lead poisoning, self-taught. He got worried years ago when his neighbors who worked at ASARCO started getting sick. He launched a long, lonely crusade to shut down the smelter and today he's mortified to hear it may reopen.
PINON: That the industry is allowed to have it happen is not as bad as the people letting it happen.
O'BRIEN: The government?
PINON: The government, yes.
O'BRIEN: Danny Arellano is one of those sick workers that Joe Pinon was worried about. Danny proudly followed his father's footsteps into the smelter and spent 24 years there.
DANNY ARELLANO, FORMER ASARCO WORKER: I saw the pay three times as much as a normal person that's not -- only has a high school education. Great benefits and at 20, that sounded great.
O'BRIEN: It turned out to be blood money, literally. He doesn't look it, but Danny is now a very sick man. Battling a rare, painful bloody disease that he, his family and the experts say may be linked to chemicals generated in that smelter.
ARELLANO: My wife asked, "What can we do for him, doctor?" He says, "Nothing. There's nothing we can do. So it's only a matter of time, we're going to control it with painkillers." Money is not going to cure this.
O'BRIEN: But there is plenty of money to be made here should ASARCO get the green light to start smelting copper once again.
DOUG MCALLISTER, ASARCO GENERAL COUNSEL: We're looking at a billion dollars in revenues.
O'BRIEN: That's an enticing sum.
MCALLISTER: It is.
O'BRIEN: ASARCO's chief counsel, Doug McAllister talks like it's all a lead pipe cinch.
MCALLISTER: We have a right to be here. We own the property, we own the plant, we have an operating permit. And the best use of that plant is as a copper smelter.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to work for a company that cares about my health, safety and well being.
O'BRIEN: The company is spending a lot of money spreading that message, saturating the local airwaves, trying to win support for opening. The claim, an operating smelter would generate about 1,800 jobs and inject a billion dollars into a sagging economy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The choice is to deny --
O'BRIEN: But even the elected leaders in this town are saying no to the new jobs. Normally that's political suicide. El Paso's mayor John Cook is singing the ASARCO blues.
JOHN COOK, MAYOR OF EL PASO, TEXAS: ASARCO's time has come and gone. They need to join the dinosaur and become extinct.
O'BRIEN: But as it turns out, ASARCO has unearthed one of the best tools of all to avoid becoming extinct, bankruptcy. Go figure. The grim details coming up.
O'BRIEN: Back in the west Texas town of El Paso, the ASARCO copper smelter, now a symbol of the national debate over whether our government has given up protecting the environment and all of us from big polluters.
The company invited me to tour the smelter. Plant manager Bob Litle was my guide. It's been mothballed for nine years and to the untrained eye, it looked like a rusting, creaky, leaky, generally ancient facility.
BOB LITLE, EL PASO PLANT MANAGER: ASARCO thinks we're going to spend millions of dollars in rehabbing this equipment and putting it in A-1 shape.
O'BRIEN: Just this equipment here or the whole --
LITLE: The whole plant.
O'BRIEN: ASARCO has just gotten permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state version of the EPA, to pump up to five tons of lead into the air here every year. The state imposed additional monitoring requirements, but the smelter would still be one of the biggest lead emitters in the country.
Emotions ran high among ASARCO's opponents. Danny Arellano was there, the former ASARCO worker is crusading to keep the smelter shuttered while fighting a rare blood disease that he blames on his exposure to chemicals that swirled around the plant when it was running.
What does this mean though for El Paso if they start smelting copper there again?
ARELLANO: Well, it means good jobs for the people in there, supposedly 1,800 that are going to supply them, but how about the rest of the millions around here, we don't count?
O'BRIEN: Is it safe with all these people so nearby?
LITLE: It is safe. We've done the study and it shows that it's safe.
LANDRIGAN: Each time that we've made a discovery about toxicity of lead at low levels, levels that we previously thought were safe, it's become necessary to revise the standards downward.
O'BRIEN: In just a few months, the EPA is expected to dramatically strengthen lead standards to better protect children. An EPA staff report says the current levels are both dated and dangerous.
El Paso is just one battle in ASARCO's nationwide war with its neighbors. The company is responsible for more than 90 toxic waste sites across the country, 17 of them on the environmental most wanted list, you know, the federal government's super fund. It's designed to make polluters pay to clean up their messes. At least that was the idea.
The state of Washington has at least seven ASARCO sites in need of cleanup. Residents there watched with horror as ASARCO abruptly stopped cleaning up superfund sites one day in 2005. The day after ASARCO filed for bankruptcy.
That's no coincidence. Bankruptcy offers a huge loophole for companies to legally walk away from environmental cleanups.
SEN. MARIA CANTWELL, (D) WASHINGTON: We shouldn't leave this up to the bankruptcy courts. We should have a good, strong federal law that says these are your responsibilities.
O'BRIEN: Senator Maria Cantwell asked the Government Accountability Office to look into this. And the GAO found businesses are legally restructuring in "ways that can limit their future expenditures for environmental cleanups."
In other words, file bankruptcy and stick the taxpayers with big bills for clean up.
Are American corporations or corporations in this country using bankruptcy as a tool to avoid paying for cleanups? CATHERINE MCCABE, EPA DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR: No, I don't believe that they are.
O'BRIEN: the EPA deputy administrator in charge of enforcing super fund laws.
MCCABE: If a company enters bankruptcy and if a company doesn't have enough assets to pay for the cleanup, you can bet that all their assets will be used to satisfy the creditors and to pay for that cleanup.
O'BRIEN: Are you going to stare me straight in the face and tell me corporations are not using bankruptcy as a way to avoid paying for cleanups?
MCCABE: Corporations declare bankruptcy for economic reasons. They don't do it to avoid environment liabilities.
O'BRIEN: But look at this press release from ASARCO announcing its chapter 11; the primary reason given, environment liability.
PROF. JACK WILLIAMS: Bankruptcy law collides --
O'BRIEN: Bankruptcy law Professor Jack Williams.
WILLIAMS: You can walk away from an environmental liability without paying it in full. And all of the indications that I've seen in the bankruptcy cases so far suggest that's what ASARCO is attempting to do.
O'BRIEN: And it's all perfectly legal?
WILLIAMS: As presently framed, it certainly is.
O'BRIEN: By one estimate, ASARCO is on the hook for $11 billion to clean up its long trail of toxins. Doug McAllister is ASARCO's chief counsel.
Have you used bankruptcy as a way of circumventing this responsibility?
MCALLISTER: No, we have not. Bankruptcy actually provides a way for resolving it.
O'BRIEN: You're going to pay for the full cost?
MCALLISTER: There's a lot of factors that have to play out before we emerge from bankruptcy. We'll have to see what it is.
O'BRIEN: Bankruptcy experts we consulted say when all is said and done, the company will likely settle its environmental claims for no more than 40 cents on the dollar. You and I will pay the rest.
Still, the government's super fund legislation was enacted to guarantee corporations, not taxpayers' pay, no matter what. But in 1995, Congress decided not to renew the super fund tax on companies that pollute.
Super fund is a broken law.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Super fund, without the -- without an agency enforcing it and without the polluters paying, yes, isn't working right now.
O'BRIEN: Which brings us back to El Paso and Danny Arellano.
When you see that stack, what goes through your mind?
ARELLANO: Money isn't everything. I'm going through a living hell. And there's nothing I can do about it.
O'BRIEN: When we come back, the government is trying to kill --
So there will be some poison?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There will be some; just a question of how much.
O'BRIEN: and protect these animals.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm scratching my head, too.
O'BRIEN: The prairie dogs of war in Washington.
O'BRIEN: Welcome back. If it weren't for the Endangered Species Act, the symbol of our nation would probably be extinct. But while bald eagles are thriving today, the law which kept them from disappearing is under assault.
We found two federal agencies, one protecting a rare species, another possibly dooming it. All because the government's left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. And both of those hands are in your pockets.
Ah, the American west; big, beautiful, wide open spaces; stunning distance, like South Dakota's Canata Basin.
TRAVIS LIVIERI, PRAIRIE WILDLIFE RESEARCH: People come out here and see this ocean of grass and they think of it as just that exactly, an ocean of grass.
O'BRIEN: But venture out here after dark sometime as biologist Travis Livieri does so often. Take a look beneath the surface and you'll see an amazing, unseen world.
LIVIERI: There's a lot of diversity of species and life on the prairie that a lot of people don't actually know about.
O'BRIEN: I sure didn't and I also didn't know about the epic battle over just who can rightly call this range home; a cute looking rodent, a highly endangered ferret, or the ultimate icon of the west. These days, they're all vying for their piece of that ocean of grass, while the government works both sides of the fence.
Your tax dollars at work, with a government success story to save an endangered animal and another government plan that could unravel it all.
This western saga begins with rancher Marv Jobjen. I caught up with him on the spread his family has owned for four generations. Like so many cattlemen in this part of the world, he believes prairie dogs are nothing more than a pest; a hungry pest at that.
MARV JOBJEN, RANCHER: This is a live hole. You have scat on the ground. You can see there you're around it where they chewed up all the grass and stuff.
O'BRIEN: After all, the prairie dogs and Marv's cows are after the same precious resource -- grass; already suffering under the weight of a seven-year drought.
Do you hate prairie dogs?
JOBJEN: I'm getting to.
O'BRIEN: Marv is a man of his word. When I asked him what the rifle in his pick up is for, he promptly showed me. Where is he?
JOBJEN: Sitting on that brown log.
O'BRIEN: Marv is one of about 15 ranchers around the Canata Basin who lease this federal grazing land with generous subsidies from the government and now they're asking the forest service to poison most of the prairie dogs that live here.
JOBJEN: They're rodents. They need to be managed at a level that's -- that their habitat will support them. And it's not happening in Canata Basin.
O'BRIEN: And this curious critter is why it's not happening. That's a black-footed ferret that just stole our microphone cover. It's one of the most endangered mammals in North America.
Oh, my goodness. Look at that.
O'BRIEN: What began with only 18 ferrets has evolved into this. After 26 years and more than $25 million of your tax money, a different government agency. The fish and wildlife service has produced over 6,000 ferrets in captivity and released over 3,000 animals into the wild.
MIKE LOCKHART, FORMER RECOVERY COORDINATOR: There was a lot of concern over whether we would be able to breed them successfully in captivity.
O'BRIEN: Biologist Mike Lockhart was one of the big players in this amazing comeback.
So it's a success story?
LOCKHART: It's a partial success story. It depends on how you want to look at it. In terms of saving them, a ferret from extinction, certainly that's true. In terms of recovery in the wild, which is our mandate and responsibility, we've got a long way to go.
O'BRIEN: And they say they won't get there without passing through the Canata Basin. You see, black-footed ferrets not exist without prairie dogs. They are about 90 percent of their diet and the Canata Basin is the prairie dog capital of the world. As a result, it is now home to about 300 black-footed ferrets.
LOCKHART: We've had remarkable progress in this program beyond our wildest imagination.
O'BRIEN: Marv Jobjen is not going to like this.
Do you care about the black-footed ferret? Whether it survives or not, does that matter to you?
JOBJEN: Personally, I guess I could live probably without him. But I think it's a good thing to save the species, yes. I don't have nothing against a black-footed ferret.
JOBJEN: Some of the conditions that come with him, I can't live with.
O'BRIEN: So Marv and his ranching neighbors started a squeaky wheel routine with the politicians and by extension the forest service, which manages the Canata Basin grazing lands.
JOBJEN: You can just see how the sweep of the low country there is almost all populated by prairie dogs.
O'BRIEN: In 2002, the ranchers convinced the forest service to wipe out prairie dogs on a half mile swathe of government land right next to their private ranches.
Meanwhile, outside the poison zone, other government agencies are working to protect the prairie dog.
So we're paying to save them and kill him within ten feet. That makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?
JOBJEN: But that's what happens when you get agencies that nobody talks to anybody.
O'BRIEN: If the ranchers had their say, you and I would be pay to exterminate prairie dogs all over this federally owned land. And the forest service is all ears.
RICK CABLES, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: The political folks listen to the ranchers as they should.
O'BRIEN: Rick Cables is the forest service guy in charge in this part of the world.
CABLES: Of course they're a constituency. And they're influential and they're trying to make their case and advocate for their interests.
O'BRIEN: He made one thing clear to me, there will be more poisoning here. It's just a matter of how many prairie dogs will die.
One option on the table cut the size of the prairie dog habitat in half. Uh-oh, Mike Lockhart and the ferrets are not going to like this.
LOCKHART: It's devastating for us to think that our most important recovery site is threatened like that. What you're talking about is actually a fly speck on the map in terms of habitat.
O'BRIEN: What do you say to those who say, "Look, things are going well here, don't mess with it?"
LOCKHART: I say that we're trying to keep the things going well. We want to be successful with the ferrets and the ferret reintroduction program without a question we want that.
O'BRIEN: Really? Even the forest service scientists agree with the experts at Fish and Wildlife that if you poison prairie dogs here, you will harm a highly endangered species. And you may very well kill the prairie.
Prairie dogs are an essential part of the food chain; A keystone species for many other animals.
I'm still scratching my head trying to understand how 12 to 15 ranchers can have that much clout, can shift the political landscape such that it could up end all the work you're doing here.
LOCKHART: I'm scratching my head too. I've never seen things get this polarized so quickly.
O'BRIEN: When we come back, my search for answers to the Canata Basin controversy brings me here to Washington, where there are no easy solutions. There may be a compromise in the works, however. Not from the government.
O'BRIEN: We return to our tale of dueling western icons now: ranchers gunning for prairie dogs; environmentalists fighting to protect them and the endangered black-footed ferret; and your government paying to protect both animals with your tax money while simultaneously laying plans for a mass prairie dog extermination, also with your tax money.
It was enough to make my head spin. What did I do? I went to Washington. Laugh if you must, but I wanted to see why there is such disregard for a species protected by law.
I paid a visit to Mark Ray. He is the Agriculture Department's point man for protecting endangered species. That's interesting. Because when he was a timber industry lobbyist and senate staffer, he did all he could to weaken the endangered species act. That's Washington for you. Ray says this dispute is all about protecting endangered ranchers.
If the cattleman, who are adjacent to the Canata Basin don't have access to that grazing land, do you feel that those ranchers would fall out of their family hands?
MARK RAY: Potentially, that's a real risk. And then the ranchers are faced with a choice to sell their private land to somebody who will develop it more intensely.
O'BRIEN: Intense development? There's no sign of that here, unless you count the prairie dog towns. And no one, including the most hard core environmentalist, is suggesting the ranchers be cut off from having their livestock eat government grass.
Would you agree that the ferret story though is one of the great environmental success stories?
RAY: Absolutely. There's no question about that.
O'BRIEN: Why not let it be?
RAY: Because nature isn't static and often times environmental success stories have an unintended consequence at the back end.
O'BRIEN: Translated -- it's a political fact of life that the ranchers are poised to prevail.
So there will be some poisoning.
RAY: Right, there will be some poisoning, just a question of how much.
O'BRIEN: So after paying for the success story, I wonder how much we taxpayers are willing to pony up to scuttle the revival of the black-footed ferret.
Mark Ray is in no hurry to decide. As a matter of fact, since we started asking questions on this story, the entire decision making process has slowed to a crawl. And in that time, a very unusual alliance has formed.
O'BRIEN: That's Jonathan Proctor, at Marv Jobjen's ranch. He is among several environmentalists looking for ways to find new cattle grazing sites for the Canata Basin ranchers. I was there when he made his pitch to a reluctant Marv.
JONATHAN PROCTOR, ENVIRONMENTALIST: For land owners who want to continue to be ranchers in this area, let's figure out how to help make that happen. JOBJEN: They need grass and you can't have grass and prairie dogs.
O'BRIEN: It may be tense, but at least they're talking. While our broken government sits on the sidelines.
But scientists inside the government whose opinions once mattered are still demoralized.
Just after the first of the year, Mike Lockhart retired after 32 years of service. He left on a low note. In his farewell memo to Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues, he said he was ignored and circumvented by arrogant superiors whose unilateral decisions affecting the black-footed ferret program have caused major perhaps irreversible impacts.
Lockhart says it all reflects the nature of the top-down management approach of the current administration.
LOCKHARD: I think that there's been more of an emphasis on making decisions at higher levels without input from biologists.
O'BRIEN: So in other words, politics is trumping science here?
LOCKHART: I think that's true. Yes. If we're going along the current track, recovery of the species is hopeless.
O'BRIEN: Still to come, when politics crushes science.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think, our founding fathers, if they saw what is happening now, they would have tears in their eyes.
O'BRIEN: There was a time when politics and science used to stay in their respective corners. These days, the partisans and the scientists are in the ring mixing it up. And some respected government agencies are walking away with black eyes.
If there's one federal agency we can all be proud of, surely it is NASA. It's the agency that brings us the stars, takes us to other planets, studies our own and, of course, gave us the moon.
That's the agency Gretchen Cook-Anderson thought she was joining, a place literally and figuratively way above petty politics.
GRETCHEN COOK-ANDERSON, NASA CONTRACTOR: My job was supposed to be to get the news out.
O'BRIEN: But she also soon felt like an astronaut in a spinning centrifuge, under intense pressure and kind of queasy.
COOK-ANDERSON: It was a heavy weight that I felt was just coming further and further down on my head.
O'BRIEN: Gretchen was unwittingly caught in a political orbit at NASA headquarters. Her beat was all about melting glaciers and rising sea levels here on earth. She was the PR person handling global warming, a real hot potato.
COOK-ANDERSON: There was a lot of pressure for us to do what our boss wanted. And in sense, boss meaning President Bush.
O'BRIEN: In her first week on the job, a movie called "The Day After Tomorrow" hit theaters nationwide. It's a dire story of climate change running amok, causing a sudden apocalypse.
Reporters started calling her asking for a reality check from NASA's experts. Gretchen's bosses, Bush administration political appointees, told her to block scientists from talking or if a reporter had already called a scientist directly --
COOK-ANDERSON: I was to sit in on those interviews and to provide some bit of coaching prior to the interview.
O'BRIEN: Sitting in on the interviews and coach. So you become kind of like a minder?
COOK-ANDERSON: I guess you could call it that, yes.
O'BRIEN: Her bosses? Assistant administrator for public affairs, Glenn Mahone, who came to NASA during the Clinton years, but switched allegiance when Bush came into office, and his deputy, Dean Acosta, a former local TV reporter, dispatched to NASA from the White House.
Gretchen says they started to heavily edit her press releases on climate change.
COOK-ANDERSON: They were changes that either softened the news, altered the news altogether or there were also times when instead of receiving that hard copy back, I was just essentially told this is -- we just don't think this is news and it shouldn't happen.
O'BRIEN: Mahone and Acosta declined on-camera interviews but Mahone talked to me on the phone. He said coaching scientists or other NASA staffers for interviews was a common practice but he vehemently denies ever doctoring a press release.
Gretchen did as she was told until it came to this man. That's NASA's climate change superstar Jim Hansen. Hansen was the first scientist to tell Congress about global warming 20 years ago before a committee chaired by a certain senator from Tennessee. Later, Hansen provided much of the scientific half behind Al Gore's slide show turned movie, "An Inconvenient Truth."
In 2004, Hansen gave a speech warning the glaciers are melting faster than scientists first thought and that earth is nearing a climate tipping point; definitely not the White House party line. Gretchen says her boss, Glenn Mahone, was enraged.
COOK-ANDERSON: He wanted me to call Jim Hansen and tell him to cease and desist. O'BRIEN: You?
O'BRIEN: Pick up the phone, call Jim Hansen, perhaps certainly in the top tier of leading climatologist experts on this field, tell him to be quiet?
O'BRIEN: And how did you feel about that request?
COOK-ANDERSON: I felt like a deer in headlights.
O'BRIEN: Gretchen refused and says she soon found herself in a career Siberia.
Mahone again denies he ever told Gretchen Cook-Anderson to muzzle Hansen or had anything to do with her being marginalized. While I was there, he said it may very well have happened but it certainly didn't happen under my direction or with my knowledge.
Gretchen Cook-Anderson's direct boss, Dean Acosta, told me he believes the integrity of science and technical information should never be compromised and he says he has devoted his entire career to clear, concise, open and transparent communications.
Gretchen's story is the tip of a melting ice berg. Scientists have several federal agencies have complained the Bush administration is muzzling them when their findings seem to undermine White House policy on global warming.
CHRISTIE TODD WHITMAN, FORMER EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I think the reason for that is everything has become political. Everything -- and both parties are doing this. They are looking at everything through the political lens.
O'BRIEN: Christie Todd Whitman was Bush's first Environmental Protection Agency administrator. She expected to tackle the global warming issue but was blocked. And she lays blame on Dick Cheney's doorstep.
WHITMAN: The vice president certainly has had a big role to play and he has been very concerned about energy issues and he has been very concerned about the health of the energy companies.
O'BRIEN: So the interests of the oil and gas industry just trumped all?
WHITMAN: Well, it had a big influence on it.
O'BRIEN: Vice President Cheney's office declined our request for a response to Christie Todd Whitman's allegations. Once Jim Hansen went public with his plight, the publicity forced the NASA administrator to remove the muzzles. MIKE GRIFFIN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: When I was made aware that Jim had an impression or other scientists had an impression that they were being denied access to the media, I fixed it immediately.
O'BRIEN: Jim Hansen and his NASA colleagues may be free to talk now. But what about all the other scientists in other agencies?
JAMES HANSEN, NASA CLIMATE SCIENTIST: The assumption in a democracy is that the public is informed and they are honestly informed. I think our founding fathers, if they saw what is happening now, they would have tears in their eyes because this just does not make sense.
That's all the time we have for this edition of Broken Government. A final thought from Teddy Roosevelt, he once said conserving our national resources is a fundamental problem; one that underlies every other problem of our national life. Century old words that today's broken government could take to heart.
I'm Miles O'Brien. Thanks for joining us.
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