Another toxic EPA cookbook
President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s environmental agenda — massive cuts to the EPA budget, short-circuited environmental reviews, reduced enforcement, weaker rules and scores of rollbacks of environmental protections — is shamelessly out of step with overwhelming public support for protecting the environment. The main strategy for selling this toxic stew has been to highlight its “benefits” and downplay its harms. Not content with that, the Trump administration is also working on new tricks to cook the books and hide the benefits of environmental protections.
It is easy to understand why the administration wouldn’t be eager to call attention to the facts. Their proposed budget cuts of $2.4 billion would cripple the EPA, but barely make a dent in federal outlays, reducing them by .005 percent (1/20,000th), about $8 for each of our nation’s people. Similarly, the public health benefits of EPA regulations, hundreds of billions, or even trillions of dollars are between five and 30 times their costs. And while regulatory costs affect corporate earnings, benefits improve people’s lives, preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and emergency room visits. It’s a small wonder that the EPA wants to make public health benefits disappear.
One particularly brazen effort is what the EPA, with a label as false as Trump’s claim to be the “number one environmental president,” calls a science “transparency” rule. Our nation’s environmental laws recognize the importance of science and require the EPA to base its regulatory decisions on the best available scientific information. The proposed rule turns this on its ear, requiring the agency to ignore or downplay scientific information, no matter how relevant or reliable or compelling, if it doesn’t meet a “transparency” requirement not found in any EPA law.
A particular target of the rule is to censor information based on human health studies that followed the standard practice of protecting patient confidentiality. The rule treats such information as somehow illegitimate and vaguely sinister, and labels it “non-public.” But common sense tells us that the best information about how a pollutant affects human health may come from studies of patients exposed to it. Much of what we know about the enormous damage particle pollution does to human health, including 230,000 premature deaths each year, comes from patient studies that the EPA apparently wants to bar.
Even so, the notice proposing the rule seems curiously evasive as to whether the rule would bar such studies from use, and does not directly identify even a single study it would affect. The proposal uses verbal smoke and mirrors to hide its intentions, with what passes for an explanation buried in one of the proposal’s two dozen footnotes. There, we learn that courts have upheld the EPA’s use of “non-public” information, but the agency now plans to use its “discretionary authority” to bar use of “such data in future regulatory actions.” In lieu of further explanation, the EPA cites a pair of court decisions (together running to nearly 20,000 words), leaving it to the reader to decipher this verbiage, locate the court-approved studies and infer that they will be barred from future use. If this is how EPA goes about “strengthening transparency,” it’s frightening to think how it might go about weakening it.
The EPA apparently worried that even with all this obfuscation its plans were still too “transparent,” and issued a supplemental proposal further confusing the subject with an alternative option that the EPA might — or might not — adopt. Under that option, it could consider such information, while discounting it by some — naturally — unspecified amount.
The real world impact of the EPA’s new approach to “transparency” is apparent in its recent decision to disregard medical evidence it had previously found persuasive, showing that the pesticide chlorpyfiros stunts brain development in children. That decision was a boon for agribusiness and chemical manufacturers, while consigning countless children to brain damage and lost potential. Moreover, the chlorpyfiros decision suggests that, whether the EPA claims to be discounting information or admits to ignoring it altogether, it won’t really use the information in making decisions.
The so-called “transparency rule” is currently at the Office of Management and Budget undergoing a final review. Administrator Wheeler has indicated his intention to finalize the rule before the end of the calendar year.
This is not the only information-hiding trick that the EPA has up its sleeve. It used a pair of others in a recent decision finding it does not need to regulate mercury emissions from power plants. First, the agency discounted benefits from controlling mercury that had not been quantified or monetized, even though the Clean Air Act defines mercury as a hazardous air pollutant and is known to cause a host of health problems.
Next, it completely ignored the enormous health benefits from reductions in fine particle pollution that will result from controlling mercury emissions. Its “reasoning,” which would be laughed out of any accounting office or corporate boardroom, is that it’s neither necessary nor appropriate to consider co-benefits, no matter how certain or substantial, unless they were the “target” or direct purpose of a proposed action. This is exactly like telling people who want to cut cancer risks to quit smoking without mentioning the benefits for their lungs, heart and general wellbeing. No one would do this in the real world. Even think tank lobbyists who like the idea of making agencies ignore co-benefits would never ignore them in managing their own personal or family finances.
Apparently the Trump-Wheeler team doesn’t want to trust our nation’s people with real numbers showing the true costs and benefits of its anti-regulatory agenda. Their new tricks for cooking the books on air quality may produce better looking numbers but won’t make it any easier or healthier to breathe the air.
David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency’s progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.