Critic takes CARB to court
UCLA professor James Enstrom was ousted after challenging the science CARB used to justify truck and bus regulations.

By Charlie Morasch, contributing writer

An academic who publicly criticized the science at the heart of several major diesel truck rules will get his day in court.

James Enstrom, an epidemiologist who clashed with the California Air Resources Board over findings about the effects of diesel pollution, is suing current and former officials over his firing from the faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles. Enstrom says his opposition to scientific findings accepted by CARB put a target on his back among department faculty.

The suit is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 18 in U.S. District Court in Riverside, Calif.

Enstrom earned a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University and worked for 35 years on the UCLA School of Public Health faculty as a researcher before being fired in 2010. Enstrom’s research conflicted with beliefs that diesel emissions are linked with early deaths for Californians.

Regulatory bodies like CARB and CALEPA have found Enstrom’s research and opinions to be an inconvenient truth, the epidemiologist said in an interview.

“It’s unfortunate when this descends into politics, but that’s basically what’s happened here,” Enstrom told Land Line. “This has become a political football and not a scientific issue anymore. You only have to look at the amount of evidence that exists in the healthiness of truckers and the improvements that have been made in diesel engines – engines, emissions systems and the fuel itself is light years ahead of what it was back in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Epidemiologists study patterns, causes and effects of diseases.

According to the suit, Enstrom began a study in 2002 examining the relationship between particulate matter 2.5 and mortality in California. Published in 2005, his findings found no relationship between PM 2.5 and total mortality in the state. It was the largest and most detailed study of the relationship between PM 2.5 and total mortality in California that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the suit states.

“You have a whole set of regulations in California that are generally much more restrictive than in other states,” Enstrom said. “And they’re not reflective of the actual health effects associated with these restrictions and regulations. There is no relationship between fine particulate pollution and total mortality in California. That’s been my contention since I published my paper at the end of 2005.”

Enstrom’s viewpoint on particulate matter epidemiology put him in the minority among his colleagues at UCLA, the lawsuit says. In December 2008, only months after then-UCLA law professor Mary Nichols was appointed to serve as CARB chairman, Enstrom issued a series of public criticisms of science used by CARB to justify diesel truck regulations.

“In 2009, Dr. Enstrom’s longtime academic career as a research faculty member … was severely crippled and eventually ended after the defendants initiated a series of actions designed to silence and ultimately terminate Dr. Enstrom in retaliation for his constitutionally protected speech and actions,” the complaint reads. “Additionally, defendants discriminated against Dr. Enstrom based on his ideological and political affiliations and sought to purge an academic dissenter from their ranks.”

Nichols has proven to be a formidable foe, Enstrom said.

“She is a very powerful person, and unbelievably unethical in terms of the way she’s led that agency,” Enstrom told Land Line. “She is in position because of the governor, and she has been able to run CARB with an iron fist.”

Enstrom questioned science used to justify the implementation of CARB’s Truck and Bus Rule, also known as the Retrofit Rule, which is estimated to cost trucking companies between $6 billion and $10 billion.

Enstrom’s complaints about CARB’s leading research eventually spilled out during a heated public meeting at CARB, with some board members criticizing Nichols for withholding crucial information about researchers from certain board members and the public.

It was Enstrom who exposed Hien Tran – then the lead author of CARB’s report on PM 2.5 and premature death – as not having a Ph.D. from the University of California-Davis as Tran claimed. Tran later admitted to paying $1,000 for the Ph.D. from an Internet diploma mill in New York City. 

Enstrom also alleged serious unethical conduct by Nichols and then UCLA faculty member John Froines. Froines chaired the state’s Scientific Review Panel – a body Enstrom said included members that had served too many terms – which Enstrom claimed had damaged a fundamental tenet of the peer review process.

Froines and other members of the panel were removed around 2010.

By November 2009, Enstrom had been notified that his appointment as a researcher was under review. In April 2010, a vote of faculty at the school was taken to consider his appointment. He was told he had been let go because his research “is not aligned with the academic mission of the department,” court documents state.

Enstrom is being represented by attorneys with the American Center for Law & Justice. Defendants include University of California President Mark Yudof, University of California Chancellor Gene Block, and several other current and former academic supervisors in the California education system.

“These people are now facing some hard reality as to whether they’re really doing the public health research that’s in the best interests of good science and in the best interests of the health of Californians,” Enstrom said. “That’s why this is worth the fight.” LL