Raw Deal
Bad science and contempt for the law allow the government to destroy a family oyster farm.

Kevin Lunny, patriarch and owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co.


Jillian Kay Melchior

“Either it’s just really sloppy science, or it’s deliberate,” Goodman says. “But when you see the same people do the same thing over and over and over again, it’s hard not to conclude intent.”

The examples of bad science are abundant. In another report, Goodman discovered the Park Service had claimed the oyster farm had an adverse effect on red-legged frogs, an endangered species. One problem: Red-legged frogs live in fresh water, not the salt water of the oyster farm. Goodman dug further and found that the Park Service was claiming the presence of Drakes Bay Oyster Co. put the red-legged frog at “increased risk for vehicle strikes.” In other words, the government was claiming an endangered frog might somehow trek toward the seashore, cross a road, and get hit by a car on the half-mile path leading to the oyster farm.

And recently, the Park Service complained that one of the “major impacts” of the farm was on the soundscape of the surrounding park lands. The Park Service was talking about noise from Lunny’s plastic oyster tumbler, a machine used to sort oysters by size, which is powered by a tiny, one-quarter-horsepower electric motor. But rather than measuring the sound from the oyster tumbler itself, Goodman discovered the Park Service had used as a stand-in some noise-disruption data from a 400-horsepower cement truck, and later from a portable metal Army cement mixer filled with gravel and stone. And — here’s the kicker — the Park Service also assumed an ambient silence level roughly comparable to the Vatican library. It was an imaginative report, but it had nothing to do with the sound situation near the oyster farm.

Those are just some of the examples. After examining years of data about the oyster farm, Goodman has reported that the federal government’s reports were repeatedly inaccurate. He has also concluded that “Kevin Lunny is an environmental icon,” “a great steward of the environment,” and “one of the pioneers for organic and sustainable agriculture that also protects the environment.”

Nevertheless, the federal government’s data maligning the Lunnys and their farm was disseminated to environmental groups and immediately publicized. That faulty data was frequently cited by these organizations, even after the National Park Service was forced to admit errors. The Save Drakes Bay Coalition, a group of more than 40 local, regional, and national environmental organizations, all took up the cause of evicting Drakes Bay Oyster Co. from the Park Service land. The Lunnys say they usually agree with such environmental groups, and the groundless attack caught them off guard.

Meanwhile, instead of apologizing for its scientific errors and dropping its case, the federal government has resorted to personal attacks when its data were proven faulty, Goodman says. He has also been careful to avoid conflicts of interest, receiving no compensation from the Lunny family, Drakes Bay Oyster Co., or any of the other parties involved. He told me that his involvement was initially at the request of Supervisor Kinsey, and later at the request of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.).

Nevertheless, Goodman says, if he were 25 and a scientific neophyte, “they would have destroyed me by now. . . . They would have just rolled me over.” It’s been hard for the federal government to dismiss a scientist with Goodman’s credentials, but he says he worries about the precedent this case will set.

“I’ve been outraged by the way my government, in the National Park Service and with the seeming approval of the Department of the Interior, have misused science over and over,” he says. “This sends a terrible example throughout the federal government. If they get away with this — which so far they have — it sends the signal to every young scientist throughout the federal government to forget about science, forget about data, find out what your boss wants.”

These botched pseudoscientific studies should be a central consideration in the battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Co. But the Department of the Interior has attempted to relegate science to the sidelines in this decision. If Secretary Salazar prevails, it will be thanks to a grossly flawed interpretation of both science and law.

Back in 2004, the National Park Service issued an opinion stating that the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which designates the surrounding Drakes Estero as a potential wilderness area, did not allow the oyster farm’s leasing permits to be extended.

Senator Feinstein decided to champion the cause of the small oyster farm, crafting a rider to a 2009 appropriations bill that explicitly allowed the Interior Department to extend the oyster farm’s lease for ten years, “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” She also directed Salazar to “take into consideration recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences Report.”