In today’s hearing, Smith takes aim at public health protections
© Getty

The hearing name seems designed to get a laugh: “Making the EPA Great Again.”

But it’s less funny when you realize what Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, is really aiming at: handing over even more power to industry to boost their profits by making the EPA and other agencies powerless to protect Americans. A plain-language version of his proposal: let's make bedrock laws like the Clean Air Act impossible to implement or enforce, because we don't need to protect the public. What’s good for big business is good enough for Chairman Smith. 

ADVERTISEMENT
This isn’t something new. Chairman Smith has a long record of working to undermine science-based policies and baselessly attacking scientists who serve the public. For a long time now, he’s been the leading voice for the petrochemical industry’s effort to fight regulations that protect the public from the pollution industry creates. 

Take the “Secret Science Reform Act,” a bill Chairman Smith has introduced repeatedly in past years. From its very name, the bill is based on a false premise—there is no “secret science” in use by the EPA or any other agency. All the studies used to make policy are public, part of an extensive process that includes independent review and public comment. 

What Chairman’s Smith’s bill would do is make it illegal to for an agency to use any scientific research to inform regulation if all the raw data from the research isn’t made public. Studies of public health rely on personal medical data like hospital admissions—information that should, and legally must, be private. And there’s no requirement for industry to make data public—it is very easy for a corporation that owns a polluting facility to claim information about the processes and chemicals it uses are a trade secret. What Chairman Smith’s idea actually does is prevent the EPA from doing its job.  You can’t get much more cynical than that.  How can the EPA evaluate whether a pollutant is hurting public health if it’s forbidden to use data about what a facility is emitting and how many medical issues it’s causing? It’s a Catch-22.

How exactly does it make the EPA “great” to take away the most important tool it uses to do its job—the scientific evidence of impacts on the public?

When Chairman Smith talks about “secret science” and accuses scientists of politically manipulating their research, what he’s really saying is that he rejects the conclusions of science that conflict with his political ideas and the interests of his industry allies. You can see it in his attacks on NOAA scientists whose peer-reviewed research showed a steady pattern of climate change and in his opposition to straightforward, health-based, scientifically robust safeguards on pollutants like particulate matter, ozone, and mercury. If the science doesn’t fit his agenda, he rejects it.

Americans didn’t vote to be less safe.  But destroying the foundations of environmental protection and public health safeguards would make us all less safe. The science-based laws enforced by the EPA, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, are popular and valuable, with a long tradition of bipartisan support. Chairman Smith doesn’t have the political mandate to overturn these laws—so instead he’s looking to nullify them.

Politicians like Chairman Smith attack the abstract idea of “regulation” because it polls better than saying that they think it is fine to let companies pollute our air and water without having to clean up after themselves. These politicians  like to talk about the costs to industry from regulation, but they always ignore benefits to the public—benefits like fewer children with asthma if pollution is reduced, lower health care costs, healthier neighborhoods, safer working conditions and cleaner communities for us all.  They say those benefits aren’t tangible or can't be “valued.”  Tell that to a parent taking a child to the hospital with an asthma attack.

When the EPA can’t use the best available science to put safeguards in place, that doesn’t just affect the debate in Washington—it means hospital visits, missed days of work or school, and preventable illnesses, especially for black and Latino communities and low-income neighborhoods who bear the biggest impact of pollution, and young children and the elderly, who often are most vulnerable to environmental risks. 

When Chairman Smith says he wants to “make the EPA great again,” make sure you know what he thinks “great” looks like. Because there are lives at stake, and the science we use to protect Americans shouldn’t be subject to the goals of the industries behind Chairman Smith.

Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr. Rosenberg was the Dean of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire. He also served as northeast regional administrator and deputy director for Fisheries  at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.