EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks

EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent board of science advisers, many of whom were appointed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE, condemned the agency Tuesday for ignoring important research and the panel’s own advice as the EPA continues with numerous regulatory rollbacks. 

In a series of last-minute recommendations before the end of the year, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) reviewed a number of Trump administration proposals, including those that would scale back Obama-era rules governing pollution in waterways and tailpipe emissions standards. Another would restrict the EPA from using scientific studies that don’t make their underlying data public.

Taken as a whole, the draft reviews offer a sharp critique of the Trump administration EPA, picking apart scientific lapses in a number of signature proposals from the agency, some which have been heralded by the president directly.  

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“It is highly significant that, despite being stonewalled by EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Critics question data behind new Trump water rule | Groups seek more time to comment on Trump environmental rollback | EPA under scrutiny over backlog of toxic waste cleanups Critics question data used in rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections Overnight Energy: Trump issues rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections | Pelosi slams new rule as 'an outrageous assault' | Trump water policy exposes sharp divides MORE, the SAB has initiated its own scientific reviews of EPA proposed rules,” said Chris Frey, a former member of the SAB and a professor at North Carolina State University. 

“SAB review is important to assure that regulations are developed based on the best science and not irrespective or instead of science.” 

On the EPA’s controversial rewrite of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, the SAB found the proposal “decreases protection for our nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters,’” adding that EPA “offers no comparable body of peer reviewed evidence to support such a departure” from the Obama-era standards.

Critics of the WOTUS rewrite, including 14 states that have filed a lawsuit, have argued that the Trump administration proposal ignores the interconnectivity of water, allowing pollution in smaller tributaries that will go on to contaminate larger sources.

The SAB review largely agreed, saying the agency “neglects established science” on the connectivity between ground water, wetlands and major water bodies. It also cites the danger of excluding irrigation canals from the rule, saying it will increase exposure to pesticides and E. coli. 

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An official for the EPA said that while science may inform the WOTUS rule, “science cannot dictate where to draw the line between federal and state or tribal waters, as those are legal distinctions.”

In a separate review, the board tackles the agency’s “secret science” proposal, which critics say will stop the EPA from using the best available science, excluding even landmark studies that might not be able to make the personal data of subject participants public. The EPA argues it will help the agency focus on science that can be replicated.

The SAB reiterated “concerns about the scientific and technical challenges and feasibility of implementing some requirements,” while other key considerations were “omitted from the proposal or presented without analysis.”

The SAB, a team of more than 40 of the nation’s top scientists, had been pushing the agency to review the measure since it was first introduced. The clash pushed Wheeler to publicly apologize at a June SAB meeting for not better using its scientific advisers.

That left the SAB scrambling to complete a review by the end of the year, the timeframe needed to produce a product before the agency’s rule could be finalized. Critics however, have said that leaves EPA little time to consider the SAB’s advice.

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The EPA defended its proposal Friday, saying “science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary.”

The SAB also reviewed a Trump administration proposal that would weaken tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles, another rule that has already led to lawsuits.

“Although the preliminary regulatory analysis is quite extensive, there are significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis of the proposed rule,” the board wrote. “Together the weaknesses lead to implausible results regarding the overall size of the vehicle fleet” on which much of the rule is based.

The draft reports show an appetite within the SAB to challenge EPA decisions, even as the board has undergone tremendous turnover under the Trump administration. That is due in large part to former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses MORE, who barred appointees from serving on the board if they received agency grants for their research — something he called a conflict of interest.

However, EPA was recently criticized by the Government Accountability Office, which found EPA’s scientific boards had unusually high proportions of industry-tied members. The review also found the EPA did not follow the process for selecting the “best qualified and most appropriate candidates.”

The SAB also criticized another proposal dealing with mercury pollution, saying recommendations “do not seem to have been taken into consideration in the published analysis.”

The EPA stressed that the four reports released by the SAB on Tuesday are drafts that will be formally considered early next year.

“EPA always appreciates and respects the work and advice of the SAB,” an official said. “The final commentary and reports will be developed soon after the public meeting and then sent to the administrator.”