Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule

Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule
© Greg Nash

Democrats tore into an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan Wednesday that would bar the agency from relying on scientific studies that don’t release their underlying data — a controversial proposal resurfacing this week with reports that the agency may expand the reach of the rule.

The proposal — which the agency said will not be finalized until next year — was pushed by former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA bans use of pesticide linked to developmental problems in children Science matters: Thankfully, EPA leadership once again agrees Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE as an attempt to battle “secret science.” But it has proven to be one of the EPA’s most widely panned measures, garnering more than 600,000 comments, many of which argue the effort won’t promote transparency but will instead undercut the agency’s ability to rely on the best available science.

Many of the nation’s top medical, science and public health groups were among those who have opposed the rule.

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“These efforts pay cheap lip service to improving scientific integrity and transparency, but their true purpose is to undermine the decades of sound science on which EPA relies to protect our air, water and the health and safety of the American people,” Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoManchin puts foot down on key climate provision in spending bill House Democrats outline plan for transition to clean electricity The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Final countdown: Senate inches toward last infrastructure vote MORE (D-N.Y.) said at House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing, noting that Congress has repeatedly chosen not to forward similar proposals when they were introduced by lawmakers in years past.

“Any form of this rule essentially guarantees that political agendas are given more weight than science in EPA rule-making.”

EPA sent a longtime career employee, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, who heads the Office of Research and Development, to take questions from lawmakers.   

She told Tonko that EPA is still considering the comments, and while many supported the concept of transparency, “where they differed were in the way in which we approached that.” 

But while Orme-Zavaleta answered questions inside, the agency was busy defending the proposal on Twitter.

“Science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary. By requiring transparency, scientists will be required to publish hypothesis and experimental data for other scientists to review and discuss, requiring the science to withstand skepticism and peer review,” the agency wrote.

Numerous lawmakers, as well as witnesses from scientific and medical groups in a second panel, compared the rule to tactics used by the tobacco industry, which focused not on the public relations nightmare of questioning the health risks of smoking, but instead zeroed in on undercutting the scientific methods used to draw that conclusion.

Democratic lawmakers seized on whether career staff were consulted in the development of the rule and how it might impact regulations going forward.

Rep Bill FosterGeorge (Bill) William FosterOvernight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban We must address the declining rate of startup business launches Republicans seek vindication amid reemergence of Wuhan lab theory MORE (D-Ill.) asked if the proposal was crafted in a fashion that was bottom-up, “where the scientific staff, the career people in the EPA have come up with the first drafts,” or top-down, “where the political appointees consult with whoever they consult with and come up with a draft and then you’re at best asked to comment?”

Orme-Zavaleta said she was not involved in drafting the rule, saying it was crafted “outside of me.”

But Foster, noting that everyone above Orme-Zavaleta was a political appointee, said he was concerned by that.

“Congress has considered and rejected a lot of these ‘secret science’ proposals for good reason so you can understand why we might not be comfortable with having the final call on these made by a coal lobbyist,” Foster said in reference to EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Former EPA chief to chair pro-Trump think tank's environmental center Lobbying world MORE.

Republicans repeatedly grumbled that the committee was premature, held before the rule had been finalized, while bashing a New York Times story that reported on a draft supplement to the rule that the agency has said is old and has not been forwarded. 

“I’m glad the EPA is working toward transparency, and sad it’s been maligned by the media,” said Rep. Bill PoseyWilliam (Bill) Joseph PoseyLawmakers call on Biden to put billion toward coastal restoration Stop COVID unemployment benefits for prisoners and recoup billions in fraud READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results MORE (R-Fla.). 

Posey accused the agency in the past of forwarding a political agenda using “secret science” at the hands of “unelected, unaccountable, unrecallable bureaucrats.”

But Democrats said the proposal, both what has already been made public by the EPA as well as the draft reported on by the Times, would significantly restrict the agency’s ability to consider some landmark studies and could impact old regulations that rely on studies that kept participants' information private in order to protect sensitive health data.

“Currently scientists don’t share that data for ethical and legal reasons,” said Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), adding that the EPA should reconsider a rule that could have “a chilling effect on research overall.”

Orme-Zavaleta stressed that the rule would not be applied retroactively and that the EPA administrator could always make an exception for any study deemed too important to exclude.

She also said the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was looking into how the agency should deal with sensitive personally identifiable information and confidential business information. 

But many critics say the board was not given enough time to review the proposal overall or help craft a fix for sensitive information, hoping to fast-track those recommendations and turn them over by the end of the year — just before EPA is set to release its science transparency rule. 

Rep. Suzanne BonamiciSuzanne Marie BonamiciEnd the practice of hitting children in public schools How we can end the tragedy of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation Shakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' MORE (D-Ore.) has asked the EPA to hold off on finalizing a rule until the National Academy of Sciences can conduct a review. She sent a letter to the group Wednesday asking for their analysis.

In a second panel filled with scientific and medical experts, each was asked whether they supported the EPA’s proposal.

Even the GOP-invited witness, Center for Open Science Executive Director Brian Nosek, said he did not.