Exxon sets 'net zero' emissions goal from operations by 2050
Researchers sue EPA over advisory committee policy
Researchers and public health groups are suing the Trump administration to stop the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) policy blocking grant recipients from serving on advisory committees.
The litigants say the policy, unveiled in October by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, violates government ethics standards, the federal law governing advisory committees and laws that created the specific committees.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Washington, D.C., federal court by Earthjustice and Columbia University's Environmental Law Clinic, on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility, National Hispanic Medical Association, the International Society for Children's Health and Environment, Robyn Wilson, Joseph Árvai and Edward Avol.
"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 in a statement.
"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.
"They're claiming the academic scientists and doctors are biased and then replacing them with industry representatives," said Neil Gormley, Earthjustice's lead attorney on the case. "The hypocrisy is kind of stunning."
Pruitt wrote the policy in an effort to address possible conflicts of interest among the dozens of external advisory boards at the EPA. Supporters of the policy say people who receive EPA grants would push for policies at the agency that further their financial interests.
"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, saying that members of the EPA's main three boards received $77 million in agency grants over the past three years.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to comment, saying it's the agency's policy to avoid commenting on pending litigation.
Courts have done little to wade into federal agencies' rights to pick members of their advisory committees, as long as the panels are balanced and not conflicted.
Opponents say researchers are able to avoid conflicts of interest, and that the policy ignores potential conflicts by representatives of regulated industries on the boards.
The health groups involved say the EPA's policy will hurt public health, and some of their members are directly impacted and will have to choose between grants or board memberships.
The researchers are either current or former grant recipients or advisory board members.
Wilson, a risk analysis professor at Ohio State University, is the only plaintiff who was immediately impacted by the policy.
She has a grant and was serving on the Science Advisory Board. She refused to step down from the board, so EPA staff removed her.
"There are already procedures in place to avoid a potential conflict-of-interest among advisory board members, which makes this latest effort seem to be more about stacking the board with members who will support the new administration's deregulatory agenda," Wilson said.