Administration asks court to dismiss lawsuit from EPA scientists

Administration asks court to dismiss lawsuit from EPA scientists
© Greg Nash

Attorneys for the Trump administration are asking a court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Fewer than half of school districts test for lead | Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act | FEMA avoids climate change when discussing plan for future storms Greens sue EPA over ‘super-polluting’ truck rule Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court MORE’s new policy on science advisers.

Justice Department attorneys argued that Pruitt’s policy preventing EPA grant recipients from serving on external advisory committees is well within government ethics rules and Pruitt’s authority to pick his own advisers.

“Plaintiffs make the extraordinary claim that the EPA’s effort to ensure a diversity of viewpoints on advisory committees that provide advice and recommendations to the administrator somehow violates government-wide ethics rules. But the directive that plaintiffs challenge does no such thing,” the government wrote in a motion filed late Friday.

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Lawyers further argued that the directive is not intended to change ethics rules, but is instead merely “a general statement of policy that describes the appointment philosophy EPA will apply regarding the federal advisory committees it administers.”

“Ultimately, the power to appoint committee members is the administrator’s alone and is non-reviewable by the courts under the circumstances presented here,” the attorneys said in asking for dismissal. “Plaintiffs’ challenge to these highly discretionary policy judgments and the EPA’s power to make them is unprecedented and should be rejected by the court.”

The case is being heard in the federal District Court for the District of Columbia by Judge Trevor McFadden, who was nominated last year by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE.

Pruitt rolled out the policy in October, arguing that EPA grantees — generally academics with expertise in areas such as public health and pollution — have significant conflicts of interests. He said the new policy for advisers would eliminate such conflicts.

“We want to ensure that there’s integrity in the process, and that the scientists who are advising us are doing so with not any type of appearance of conflict,” Pruitt said at the time. “And when you receive that much money … there’s a question that arises about independence.”

Pruitt estimated that in the past three years, grantees sitting on the main three EPA advisory committees had received $77 million from the agency. The policy banning grant recipients from the boards is agencywide, applying to all 22 advisory committees.

A handful of committee members were pushed out, and many were replaced by industry- or Republican-friendly advisers.

Some groups and researchers sued the EPA in December, saying the policy violated laws governing ethics, advisory committees in general and specific laws that authorized certain committees.

“EPA’s effort to purge independent scientists from its advisory committees has harmful implications for the nation’s health,” Barbara Gottlieb, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said at the time. Her group is the leading plaintiff in the case, Physicians for Social Responsibility et al. v. Scott Pruitt.

“Losing top-flight academic researchers, and replacing them with industry-dependent voices, will undermine actions to protect us from toxic pollutants and life-threatening climate change. If EPA won’t abandon this harmful approach, we’re happy to take them to court,” she said.