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Scott Pruitt’s Trojan horse transparency proposal would undermine public health safeguards

In the past 50 years, we’ve taken real and important steps to keep America’s air and water clean. Emissions of toxic pollutants like lead, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter have all fallen. In addition, we have taken several strides forward to clean up our rivers, lakes, and streams from harmful chemicals and waste.   

Those advances didn’t happen by accident. They happened because of laws like the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the tools it needed to put public protections in place to limit pollution. And, critically, these agencies were able to look at the best available science to craft those safeguards.

{mosads}A new policy change under consideration by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would put all of that at risk.


Pruitt is planning to implement restrictions on what kinds of science the EPA can use to fulfill its mission to protect public health and the environment. Cloaked under the veil of “transparency,” these new restrictions would make it impossible for the EPA to rely on the best available science to ensure that we have clean air, clean water, safer chemicals, and many other fundamental public health protections.

We haven’t seen all the details of Pruitt’s proposal yet—instead of speaking directly to the public about his plans; he announced the change in a closed-door meeting at the Heritage Foundation and then in an interview with the Daily Caller. It’s ironic how secretive Pruitt has been about a policy supposedly meant to advance transparency; the National Association of Science Writers has criticized Pruitt’s EPA for refusing to talk to the press about this change and its potential impacts. 

While Pruitt’s EPA hasn’t been forthcoming about what they plan to do, we can expect that the basic outlines of this policy would be similar to legislation that House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has unsuccessfully pushed for years, over the objection of the country’s leading scientific societies In implementing such a policy, Pruitt would be making an end run around Congress, something he has repeatedly criticized previous administrations for doing.

This attack on science has a long history. The strategy was hatched in the 1990s by lobbyists for the tobacco industry, who invented the phrase “secret science” to undermine robust peer-reviewed research on the harmful impacts of second-hand smoke. The goal back then was to create procedural hurdles so that public health agencies couldn’t finalize science-based safeguards. This has never been and still is not about increasing transparency. This is about weaponizing transparency to prevent science-based public health protections. 

Under the rumored proposal, the EPA couldn’t use a study unless it’s perfectly “replicable” and all the underlying raw data is released to the public. That means that many of studies that are the foundation of our entire understanding of the public health impacts of pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals would be sidelined and ignored. Besides the fact that these studies rely on the private medical information of real people that obviously cannot be shared publicly, they also take place over long periods of time. And ethically, we can’t take a population of six-year-old kids and expose them to the same level of mercury, lead, or PCB contamination that previous populations unfortunately experienced.

The studies that opened our eyes to the impacts of particulate matter, lead, and other health hazards have helped guide public policy for decades. Their methodology, design, and results are all publicly available and part of the administrative record. They’ve been re-analyzed and confirmed by new studies. And putting this science to work has had real benefits for thousands of communities across the country.

Pruitt is simply discarding the tools he needs to protect the public by mandating that an agency in charge of public health could no longer rely on the science of public health.

There are constructive ways to discuss transparency at the EPA. For example, Pruitt could convene a recognized independent scientific body to consider in what way transparency can be improved in crafting public protections.

This restriction on science is one of the clearest signs yet that Pruitt is simply uninterested in listening to the evidence or using his position to protect public health and the environment—the basic requirement of his job.

This proposal is a Trojan horse—it’s presented as good government when what it actually represents is an abdication of the EPA’s mission and an open signal to industry that they won’t be held accountable. This policy kneecaps the scientific underpinnings of landmark-based laws that Americans count on every single day to protect their health.

If we’re not using science to make decisions, we can’t protect our communities. That might benefit polluting industries that have pushed this idea, but it comes as a huge cost to our health and well-being — and is a betrayal of the mission of the EPA.

Yogin Kothari is a senior Washington representative with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He advocates for science-based policy solutions on a number of issues, including the regulatory process, endangered species, and chemical safety. He also works to reduce political interference in federal science and increase transparency and accountability.

Energy and Environment