Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Tuesday that a response to inquiries he made about the impact of climate change on infrastructure in his state was censored by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s office.
Whitehouse said that, in 2017, he pressed Chao about the dangers rising sea levels presented for highways and other infrastructure in a state with 400 miles of coastline.
Chao said she’d get back to him.
At a senate hearing Tuesday, Whitehouse alleged that Chao’s letter in response — which he said was originally drafted by staff at the Transportation Department — had been the subject of “political censoring” by Chao’s office.
One reference to “sea level rise” was changed to read “sea level variations,” according to a comparison of the draft letter and the final letter released by Whitehouse. And the words “climate change” were also edited out, he noted.
“It looks like we’re seeing political censoring for ideological purposes, and I think that the climate denial and the censoring and the nonsense has got to stop,” Whitehouse said. “We ought to be having a bipartisan discussion about solutions, but this business of just striking it out of letters so that it doesn’t even come up and we’re not even allowed to talk about it is ridiculous.”
In a statement, a Transportation Department spokesman said: “policy leaders, including the Senator himself, certainly have the right to make editorial changes to documents originally drafted by staffers. ... Is Sen. Whitehouse suggesting the author of a letter (the Secretary) doesn’t reserve the right to edit the language included in that letter?”
Regardless, the spokesman said, “the changes presented on this particular letter were stylistic and also made to shorten its length.”
Whitehouse raised the issue during a hearing on the nomination of Nicole R. Nason to be administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. Nason previously served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as at the State Department and in other government posts.
Whitehouse said the letter — his office would not say how he obtained it — “forces me to ask you your assurance that you will not censor and ignore the facts and the science” if confirmed.
Nason, clearly uncomfortable, said she was “unfamiliar with this issue, and I haven’t seen the letter.”
But she added that at the traffic safety agency, “we always said, ‘Good data is king.’ And I am a firm believer in good data, and I can commit to you that we will give you the best possible information.”
“Good,” Whitehouse said.
Nason also said she has not seen, nor would she accept, any type of “political retaliation” within government, and added, “I would not support having staff feeling intimidated for any reason.”
Whitehouse described the timing related to obtaining the internal correspondence: “Before receiving the secretary’s formal response, we managed to get our hands on the draft response, the letter the career staff sent up to the secretary’s office for her final approval. And then shortly after that we got the letter from the secretary’s office,” Whitehouse said.
Changing “sea level rise” to “sea level variations” distorts what is happening, he said.
“The term ‘variations’ implies, wrongly, that the sea level rise that we’re seeing now in Rhode Island is consistent with natural changes over geologic time, when in fact the current rise in sea levels is a direct consequence of human activity, of carbon pollution, and it’s occurring at rates that humankind hasn’t seen in thousands and thousands of years. We actually measure this stuff at Naval Station Newport,” Whitehouse said.
A separate section of the letter describing risks that affect the condition of roadways was also deleted, according to the comparison Whitehouse provided. The deleted passage included the following: “risks associated with current and future environmental conditions such as extreme weather events, climate change, seismic activity” and other factors.
Whitehouse said “the political staff, presumably in the Secretary’s office, struck out” that section.
“Well, we live in Rhode Island in a world of extreme weather events and climate change, and I think we all do,” Whitehouse said.