The Republican chairmen of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and its Subcommittee on Workforce Protections are invoking “sound science” and “transparency” in a request to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for data and draft publications of a cancer mortality study of underground miners exposed to diesel exhaust. Congressman John Kline (R-MN) and Tim Walberg (R-MI) wrote to NIOSH director John Howard onJuly 8, suggesting that the agency is violating a 2001 federal court order. That order stemmed from a lawsuit filed more than 15 years ago by the MARG diesel coaltion that tried several ways to obstruct the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and NIOSH’s investigation of cancer risk for underground metal and aggregate miners. MARG members include Cargill, IMC, Morton Salt, FMC Wyoming and Detroit Salt, and are represented by top lobbying firm Patton Boggs.
The congressmen’s letter confuses what the federal judge required and what the mining firm plaintiffs are now suing to obtain from HHS.
The 2001 court order says:
“Defendants [NIOSH and NCI] shall submit to the U.S.House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce all Diesel Study data requested by the committee, as well as all draft reports, publications and draft risk notification materials prepared in connection with the Diesel Study. …Defendants shall refrain from publicly releasing information submitted to the Committee until 90 days after it is submitted to the Committee.”
In their letter to the NIOSH director, the congressmen assert however that the order requires the agency to
“submit to this Committee and the MARG all data requested by the Committee as well as all draft reports, publications or draft risk notifications…” [emphasis added]
This is not the first time that Members of Congress have intervened on behalf of MARG to interfere in the conduct of this epidemiological study. In the 1990’s when a different set of Republicans controlled the House of Representative, Congressmen William Goodling (R-PA) and Cass Ballenger (R-NC), the chairmen of the same House Committee and Subcommittee, respectively, went so far as to submit affidavits in support of MARG in the coalition’s lawsuit against HHS. Their plea to the court, likely written by MARG’s lawyers, became part of the 2001 court order that instructed NCI and NIOSH to send documents to the congressional committee before they are released to the public.
After nearly 20 years of work, including years of delay created by mining industry litigation to halt this epidemiological study, the NIOSH and NCI researchers have finally begun publishing the results. The first four papers, published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene (here, here, here and here) describe the exposure assessment methods and estimates of exposures for miners in different jobs underground. The final three, yet to be published papers, will describe results of the cohort mortality and case-control study of lung cancer. These are likely the papers of greatest interest to MARG because they may reiterate what researchers have reported previously: exposure to diesel exhaust is associated with an increase risk of cancer (here, here, here)
The NCI and NIOSH researchers submitted the papers for peer review to a scientific journal(s) earlier this year. MARG asserts, as do the congressmen, that they should have received the draft publications before they were submitted to the journal for peer review. Congressmen Kline and Walberg’s July 8 letter says they want to ensure “the utilization of sound science.” HHS insists that under the “Information Quality Act” —a law pushed in the name of “sound science” and embraced by the GW Bush Administration—-the researchers were required to submit the draft documents for scientific peer review prior to providing them to the congressional committee. It seems logical to me that the congressional committee would want to review the documents AFTER they were subjected to peer review, but nothing has been logical about the 15 years of industry and congressional interference in this study.
On Thursday, August 18, a federal judge will hear oral arguments on MARG’s lawsuit against HHS and their plea to receive the scientific papers at least 90 days before they are made available to the public.