Tar Sands Researchers Receive Retraction, Apology, and Legal Costs for Defamatory Statements Made by Alberta Government Senior Scientist
The authors of a study published in October 2009 in The Open Conservation Biology Journal were the subject of false and defamatory statements made by Dr. Preston McEachern, Section Head, Science, Research and Innovation, Alberta Environment.
The defamatory statements were made orally and in slides during a presentation at the University of Alberta in mid-March 2010 on behalf of the Government of Alberta in relation to the Alberta Oil Sands. The defamation made against Dr. Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee was also published on the internet on the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) website and reportedly at two other websites, the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada (PTAC) and the Environmental Services Association of Alberta (ESAA).
In his presentations, Dr. McEachern stated or implied the following:
- Timoney and Lee’s figures are a “lie”.
- Timoney and Lee “chose to remove data” in their study.
- Dr. McEachern was recorded stating: “The authors actually removed data from 1985, 2003, and 2004.”
These and other statements, in print and in recorded form, were an attack on the credibility of the authors and were false and defamatory. After publication of the defamatory statements, the authors contacted Dr. McEachern in writing in order to gather more information about his comments and the information he had presented. That information would have allowed Timoney and Lee to respond to the allegations and to mitigate the damage the allegations had caused. Dr. McEachern did not provide the authors with a response.
Subsequently, in a letter sent from their lawyer, the authors demanded that Dr. McEachern:
- Provide a letter to Dr. Timoney and Mr. Lee unequivocally retracting and apologizing for the statements made during his presentations;
- Immediately request that CAPP remove the defamatory material from its website;
- Identify any other websites or locations that the presentation or similar materials were posted online or elsewhere, and request the removal of such materials;
- Reimburse Timoney and Lee for legal fees and expenses incurred in this matter; and
- Undertake to refrain from making any such allegations in the future.
The demands were open for acceptance until 11 June 2010. The study’s authors received a letter on 11 June 2010 from Alberta Justice and Attorney General with an attached letter from Dr. McEachern. In the letter from Alberta Justice and Attorney General, the study’s authors are informed that Dr. McEachern accepts the offer made in the demand letter and that a cheque will be made payable to the study authors law firm in trust. In the letter from Dr. McEachern he:
- Admitted making the defamatory statements and that the statements were false;
- Unequivocally retracted the defamatory and false comments;
- Apologized for making the defamatory and false comments;
- Undertook to refrain from making similar allegations in the future.
In his letter Dr. McEachern stated: “You did not lie. You did not choose to remove data from your study. You did not actually remove data from 1985, 2003 and 2004. The statements in my presentation that you did these things were false and I regret very much that I made these statements. I unequivocally retract them. I undertake to refrain from making any allegations in the future that (i) You lied in your 2009 study.”
Timoney notes: “The key issue in initiating legal action was simple: False and defamatory statements were made against us. To allow those statements to stand could encourage future defamations of those whose opinions may differ from those of government and industry. Science thrives on an open exchange of ideas. Differing hypotheses are resolved over time by an analysis and presentation of data. Scientific arguments are never resolved by making false statements in an attempt to impugn the character of those who hold a different opinion.”
Lee states: “The focus must remain on the environmental issues of tar sands development. False and defamatory statements must not be allowed to spread a chill over the science and research community.”
The Timoney and Lee study found that physical and ecological changes that result from tar sands industrial activities are detectable and that the effects of these activities on ecosystem and public health deserve immediate and systematic study and called for the attention of the world's scientific community. The study showed how government agencies and energy companies have failed to provide timely, accurate and comprehensive environmental studies. The industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program was found unable to measure and to assess development-related change locally or in a cumulative way.
The original study: Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute? The Scientific Evidence. The Open Conservation Biology Journal, Volume 3: 65-81 is available at http://bentham.org/open/toconsbj/openaccess2.htm
A: October 2009 study by Timoney and Lee
B: i. Letter to Dr. McEachern
ii. Letter to Honourable Rob Renner
iii. Letter from Alberta Justice and Attorney General
iv. Letter from Dr. McEachern