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Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards

Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards
© Aaron Schwartz

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) increased the number of industry representatives and consultants on its top scientific board and failed to ensure all those appointees met ethics requirements, a government watchdog found.

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the EPA did not follow the process for selecting the “best qualified and most appropriate candidates” for two important committees that advise on environmental regulations and also “did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements.”

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The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a team of more than 40 of the nation’s top scientists, is designed to guide the agency on its scientific processes. 

Critics say it has been repeatedly targeted by the Trump administration. Many academics were removed by guidelines from former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOklahoma AG resigns following news of divorce, alleged affair Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues Scientific integrity, or more hot air? MORE that barred those who receive EPA research grants from serving on the committee. There was no similar ban for scientists who receive industry funding.

“The GAO’s findings are yet another example Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE handing the keys to Americans’ government to big industries that government is supposed to police,” Sens. Shelden Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperProgressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal Overnight Health Care: US to donate 500 million Pfizer doses to other countries: reports | GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message | Federal appeals court blocks Missouri abortion ban MORE (D-Dela.) said in a statement.

“After a careful investigation, the non-partisan GAO confirms what we’ve been critical of all along: The Trump Administration is violating its own rules by putting industry officials in charge of crucially important science advisory boards,” the statement said.

The GAO report said there were “notable changes” to some committees, including an initial drop in the number of academics serving on the SAB.

It also highlighted numerous issues with following ethics guidelines.

“EPA also did not consistently ensure that members appointed as special government employees (SGE)—who are expected to provide their best judgment free from conflicts of interest and are required by federal regulations to disclose their financial interests—met federal ethics requirements,” the report said, adding that there should have been more periodic reviews of its ethics programs. 

The EPA pushed back again the report.

“EPA has already provided GAO its thorough explanation on their conclusion that the Agency did not follow its own policy – the assertion is incorrect and should be removed from the report,” Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesman, said in a statement to The Hill. “Under this administration, EPA has doubled its career ethics attorney staff to ensure that all appointees meet financial disclosure requirements. Finally given the range of environmental and public health considerations across the country, EPA is proud of the fact that its chartered scientific advisory committees have the highest participation of state, local, and tribal experts than at any point in the Agency’s history. Further, legal challenges to the Agency’s FACA directive on Special Government Employees with EPA grants have been dismissed in three separate district courts.”

EPA’s SAB has pushed back against a proposal that would consideration of studies that don't make their underlying data public, even as its membership has changed. The Trump administration has also proposed cutting one-third of boards like the SAB that advise agencies.