Court tosses challenge to EPA's exclusion of certain scientists from advisory boards

A federal judge Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) policy of removing scientists with EPA grants from its advisory boards.

Public health groups, led by Physicians for Social Responsibility, and scientists who say the policy affected them, argued that then-EPA chief Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Democrats, scientists slam Trump administration actions on scientific boards Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits MORE violated federal ethics standards in 2017 with his directive that people who receive EPA grants have to choose between grants and serving on advisory committees.

Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee to the District Court for the District of Columbia, said the law gives the EPA wide discretion when naming advisory board members.

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The laws and regulations at issue “do not dictate whom administrators must, or even should, appoint to federal advisory committees,” McFadden wrote in a Tuesday ruling dismissing the case.

“To say that certain individuals may not serve is very different than saying that the rest must serve," he wrote. "Agency heads retain substantial discretion to determine membership on federal advisory committees.”

McFadden noted that ethics laws permit grant recipients to serve on the boards. But he said that is very different from mandating that they become members.

Barbara Gottlieb, director of the environment and health program at Physicians for Social Responsibility, said she was disappointed by McFadden’s ruling.

“This is an unfortunate decision. By depriving the EPA and the American people of top-quality scientific advice, it weakens the decisions the EPA makes, which means less protection for public health,” she said in a statement.

An EPA spokesman said that the agency is still reviewing the details of the ruling. “But we are pleased that the court granted our motion to dismiss all of the claims in this case,” the spokesman said.

Pruitt rolled out the policy in October 2017, arguing that serving on a committee like the Science Advisory Board would be a conflict of interest to someone receiving agency money to conduct scientific research.

“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."

Opponents, including academics and environmentalists, argued that Pruitt wanted to increase friendly representation from the fossil fuel industry and other Trump administration allies on the influential committees.

“Scott Pruitt doesn't want to listen to a word from anyone who isn't in the pocket of corporate polluters," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said at the time. "Of course Pruitt doesn't want to support science or hear from anyone who is respected in the scientific community, because science makes clear that Pruitt's policies are disastrous for the health of our kids and our communities."

Pruitt resigned in July 2018 amid growing ethics and spending scandals. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has retained the advisory board policy.

Since the policy took effect, representation for regulated industries and their allies has grown on the committees, at the expense of academics and researchers.

Wheeler named new members to the Science Advisory Board and subcommittees last month. The names include outspoken climate change skeptic John Christy and members who have done work on behalf of regulated industries.

— Updated Feb. 13 at 9:55 a.m.