Reverse EPA proposal based on trumped-up ‘secret science’ claim

Reverse EPA proposal based on trumped-up ‘secret science’ claim
© Getty Images

Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA's scientific integrity in question over science rule Major unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE has been ousted as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, but what may be the most damaging aspect of his legacy still looms. EPA is still considering Pruitt’s proposed rule to limit what science the agency can take into account when deciding whether and how to protect the public from pollution. Along with Pruitt’s policy — still in effect — to disqualify some experts from service on scientific committees, the proposal would distort and limit EPA’s ability to take action against toxic chemicals, air and water pollutants, and just about any other danger to health under its purview.

EPA has been gathering reactions to the proposal to limit science for the past three months, and that open comment period ended earlier this month. The agency should take the advice of the many scientific and higher education groups that have weighed in against the rule and withdraw it.


The language EPA has been using to promote its proposal is Orwellian. The agency frames its effort as advancing such core scientific values as transparency and peer review, while the rule would actually prevent the use of reputable scientific studies in determining environmental policy. It would also allow the EPA administrator to substitute his judgment for that of scientists by giving the agency head broad and arbitrary authority to permit the use of some studies while rejecting others.

The proposal has its origins in a trumped-up claim about the use of “secret science,” but the facts instead show why the EPA proposal itself is so dangerous. The controversy dates back to 1997 when the Clinton administration decided to limit air pollution from fine particles — products of industrial activity and other combustion that can penetrate deeply into the lung. The science on fine particles was new then, with only a couple of key peer-reviewed studies to rely on — studies that drew on confidential personal health information. Looking for a way to raise doubts about the research, opponents of pollution limits argued that the studies were “secret” because the raw data — individual health records — could not be broadly released.

So what happened? Confidentiality agreements were reached with some top scientists who then did get the data, checked the studies and found that they held up to scrutiny. Subsequent research reached similar conclusions, and scientists now consider fine particles as among the most toxic air pollutants. If Pruitt’s proposal had been in effect in 1997, EPA would have had to ignore the studies. We might have had two decades more of unregulated pollution and thousands more needless deaths. What was covert was not the science, but rather the strategy to undermine public protection using scientific-sounding concerns.

Yet, instead of seeing the outcome of the 1997 dispute as good news — EPA took action based on research and saved lives — opponents of regulation turned the issue into a rallying cry that no amount of information seems able to subdue. The result is Pruitt’s proposal to skew policy outcomes by preventing the agency from considering virtually any study that draws on data that cannot be made broadly public — no matter how significant the threat to public health, how persuasive the research results, or how many experts have concluded the study has validity.

If EPA’s concern were truly transparency and scientific integrity, it would have numerous targeted, thoughtful options to improve its use of science. Such steps were recommended in a study I co-chaired for the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2009 — a study that EPA has claimed, falsely, supports the rule. The agency could, for example, more clearly lay out its criteria for deciding which studies it is reviewing and how it is evaluating their results.

But the EPA proposal is not about solving any actual problem, it’s about making it harder to combat pollution. As administrator, Scott Pruitt took steps not only to reverse specific anti-pollution standards; he tried to reshape the system to make it harder to ever put future standards in place. For instance, he made it difficult for scientists with agency grants to serve on advisory committees — even if they were top experts and even if there was no evidence whatsoever that the government grant could bias their findings. The goal was to give a more business-oriented cast to advisory panels.

The new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has the opportunity to allow EPA once again to consider science properly. He has the authority to kill the proposal to limit science and to repeal the policy against government-funded researchers.

EPA regulations are fair game for debate. People can have legitimate differences about what level of regulation is reasonable, what risks and expenses industry and the public should bear, and about what conclusions to reach from scientific studies. But EPA should not be short-circuiting that discussion by unduly limiting which research is evaluated and by whom.

Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, Republican of upstate New York, chaired the House Science Committee from 2001 to 2006.