Battle over science roils EPA

Battle over science roils EPA

Environmental Protection Agency is battling its own board of science advisers over its controversial plan to dismiss certain types of scientific research from consideration when issuing rules.

A meeting this week between the agency and some of the nation’s top scientists highlighted the growing rift between the EPA and the scientific community, with members of the Science Advisory Board (SAB) pushing back on the administration's efforts to bar consideration of studies that don't make their underlying data public.

Critics say the move would omit important research from EPA consideration and lead to a dramatic rollback of existing regulations.

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The SAB, a team of more than 40 of the nation’s top scientists, have been asking to weigh in on the controversial proposal since it was unveiled more than a year ago.

On Wednesday, it said it would do so —despite a request from the agency to review a narrow portion of the rule. 

There’s mistrust between the scientific community and EPA’s leaders in the Trump administration.

Then-EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump officials suspend oil, gas production on Utah plots after lawsuit | California bucks Trump on lightbulb rollback | Scientists join Dems in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies MORE said the proposal, called Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would battle “secret science” when it was first introduced. That spurred scientists to call the proposal “censored science.”

EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerHouse committee hits EPA with subpoenas Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies MORE on Wednesday appeared before the board, vowing to improve the relationship between it and the agency.

“I’ll be the first to admit that we have not utilized you in ways that we should. We can and we will do better,” Wheeler said.

But many in the science and environmental community walked away from the meeting disheartened at what they see is the agency’s plan to amplify pet policies and the voices of industry over those from scientists.

“I would say the way that the meeting proceeded kind of contradicted a lot of Administrator Wheeler’s statement at the beginning of the meeting,” said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Their discussion showed that EPA has not really involved the Science Advisory Board and gotten their advice on several of the deregulatory actions they’ve proposed.”

Scientists have had a number of concerns over how the Trump administration values science, but things really came to a head when the EPA announced the science transparency rule without first consulting the SAB.

The group didn’t find out about the rule until it was publicly announced — a sign, scientists and environmentalists say, the EPA was not interested in meaningful feedback.

The proposal has since proven to be one of the most controversial EPA has written, prompting 600,000 comments. Critics say the rule will exclude some of the most important research from consideration simply because it does not rely on data that can be shared publicly.

The board sent a letter in May of 2018 with a number of questions and asking to weigh in on the rule but it took almost 11 months before the agency responded in April of this year.

Wheeler apologized for the delay Wednesday, saying it was the result of the agency taking time to rethink how it wants to work with the board going forward.

He asked the board to give its thoughts on how the agency can deal with studies that don’t make their data public because it includes confidential business information or personally identifiable information.

The board bucked that request and instead voted to review the proposal in its entirety.

“I’m wondering if any of the comments the EPA received gave you pause about proceeding with that rule?” asked Barbara Morrissey, chair of a separate EPA panel, the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee.

“I agree the confidentiality issue in an important and a thorny one so I’m glad that you referred that to us, but I’m concerned about whether the best available science can be ignored because it can’t be replicated for obvious reasons,” she said, nodding to studies of people who were exposed to harmful chemicals.

Watchers of the board were surprised by the vote given how the makeup of the board has changed under the Trump administration.

Fears that the EPA planned to sideline scientists started under Pruitt when he announced that scientists who receive grants from the EPA would not be allowed to serve on the board—a move that knocked out about half of the members sitting on the Science Advisory Board.

Reed with the Union of Concerned Scientists said there are pretty much two types of grants available to scientists—those from the EPA and those from industry. She didn’t understand why getting an EPA grant would present a conflict of interest when an industry grant wouldn’t.

“People who received these no strings attached grants and are experts on some of the most pressing environmental issues are kept from serving on the board,” she said. “It’s clearly a political maneuver to change the composition of these advisory committees.”

Twenty six of the 45 current board members were appointed during the Trump Administration, a huge amount of turnover in a board that otherwise loses under a fifth of its members each year due to term limits.  

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Chris Zarba, who served as the former staff coordinators for SAB until last year, said of the vote to review the entire science transparency rule. It’s not that the Trump administration picks aren’t qualified, he said, but a good board needs diversity.

“Think of it this way. If I was picking a world class football team, and I only picked people that were world class, top-ranked players — if all those people I picked were field goal kickers, I’d never win a game,” he said. “It’s hard to question any single member on the board, and by law the administrator can pick anyone they want and any member that is qualified, but the bigger question is: is the entire team well equipped and accurately representing mainstream science? I think we will see how it turns out...There are certainly picks I wouldn't have recommended to the administrator.”

Robert Phalen is one Trump administration pick that has been questioned by scientists for views of air pollution that are out of line with most mainstream scientists. The University of California Irvine professor told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health."

Phalen was one of the few at the meeting to vote against reviewing the science transparency rule in its entirety.

“I can see and respect both sides of the debate on transparency,” he told The Hill in an email. “We need to know if the research used for regulations is free of serious errors, and that requires other scientists having access to the data. On the other hand if the data were widely available it could be improperly used, such as for disclosing private information. So both sides have validity.”

Wheeler said the agency will move forward with something, assuring the board that the administrator will always have the power to give an exemption to an important study, even if it can’t disclose all its data.

“I do fundamentally believe the more information we put out to the public as far as what is the basis for our regulatory decisions, the more sound our decision will be and the more easily understood and accepted by the public our decision will be because they see all the science we are using,” he told the board.