IMAGE: JULIE GERBERDING
Dennis Cook  /  AP
Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding saw her testimony last October on the health impacts of climate change revised. A former EPA official says Vice President Dick Cheney's office was involved in that process.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/8/2008 2:11:34 PM ET 2008-07-08T18:11:34

A spokesperson for Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday dismissed a claim by a former EPA official that Cheney's office pushed for major deletions in congressional testimony on the  health impacts of climate change, while a top Senate Democrat called Cheney's actions a "cover-up" and vowed a hearing on the matter.

Megan Mitchell, the vice president's press secretary, dismissed the allegations by Jason Burnett, whom she referred to simply as "the Democrat."

"We don't comment on internal deliberations," said Mitchell.

Burnett, a lifelong Democrat who has contributed nearly $125,000 to Democratic candidates, resigned his post last month as associate deputy EPA administrator because of disagreements over the agency's response to climate change.

Burnett last week replied to a letter from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who asked if he had witnessed any meddling by the White House on the science of climate change, and specifically in congressional testimony last October by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When six pages were cut from that testimony by CDC Director Julie Gerberding, the White House insisted the changes were made because of reservations raised by White House advisers about the accuracy of the science.

Burnett, until last month the senior adviser on climate change to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson, said he felt that Cheney’s office was deeply involved in getting nearly half of the CDC’s original draft testimony removed.

“The Council on Environmental Quality and the office of the vice president were seeking deletions to the CDC testimony (concerning) ... any discussions of the human health consequences of climate change,” Burnett said in the letter to Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Hearing set for July 22
Boxer, for her part, on Tuesday said she would hold a committee hearing on July 22, with  Burnett as a witness. "This cover-up is being directed from the White House and the Office of the Vice President," she alleged.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that manmade pollution is warming the earth and that if the process is not reversed it will cause significant climate changes that pose broad public health problems from increases in disease to more injuries from severe weather.

Democrats on Senate and House committees have been trying for months to get e-mail exchanges and other documents to determine the extent of any political influence on government scientists, but have been rebuffed.

The letter by Burnett for the first time suggests that Cheney’s office was deeply involved in downplaying the impacts of climate change as related to public health and welfare, Senate investigators believe.

Cheney’s office also objected last January over congressional testimony by Administrator Johnson that “greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment.”

An official in Cheney’s office “called to tell me that his office wanted the language changed” with references to climate change harming the environment deleted, Burnett said. Nevertheless, the phrase was left in Johnson’s testimony.

Cheney’s office and the White House Council on Environmental Quality worried that if key health officials provided detailed testimony about global warming’s consequences on public health or the environment, it could make it more difficult to avoid regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, Burnett believes.

The EPA currently is examining whether carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, poses a danger to public health and welfare. The Supreme Court has said if it does, it must be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Nowhere were these White House concerns more apparent than when Gerberding, the head of the government’s premier public health watchdog, testified about climate change and public health before Boxer’s committee last October. The White House deleted six of the original 14 pages of Gerberding’s testimony, including a list of likely public health impacts of global warming.

The White House, at the urging of Cheney’s office, “requested that I work with CDC to remove from the testimony any discussion of the human health consequences of climate change,” wrote Burnett.

“CEQ contacted me to argue that I could best keep options open for the (EPA) administrator (on regulating carbon dioxide) if I would convince CDC to delete particular sections of their testimony,” Burnett said in the letter to Boxer.

But he said he refused to press CDC on the deletions because he believed the CDC’s draft testimony was “fundamentally accurate.”

Burnett, in a telephone interview, said he opposed making the extensive deletions because “it was the right thing to do.” He declined to elaborate about White House involvement beyond his July 6 letter to Boxer.

As a Democrat, Burnett, seems to have been an odd choice as a senior policy adviser and key liaison with the White House in Bush administration’s EPA.

Over the last eight years, he has contributed nearly $125,000 to various Democratic politicians, starting with Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Government. He supports Democrat Barack Obama for president.

Burnett caught the attention of Bush administration insiders as a researcher at the Center for Regulatory Study, a joint effort by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, where he co-authored a number of reports on regulation including one criticizing a ban on using cell phones while driving and another criticizing the EPA regulation of arsenic as too expensive with limited benefits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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