Experts warn EPA making 'secret science' rule more restrictive

Experts warn EPA making 'secret science' rule more restrictive
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest rewrite of its science transparency rule may be even more restrictive than the last one, scientists say, expanding the reach of a rule that limits consideration of studies that don’t make their underlying data public.

Spearheaded under former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump official violated ethics rules in seeking EPA job for relative, watchdog finds Pelosi hammers Pompeo, Trump: 'Scandalous' to dismiss IGs EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement MORE as an effort to battle “secret science,” critics said the effort would instead block the agency from considering landmark public health studies where researchers would be unable to share the confidential information of participants.

new version of the rule released late Tuesday walks back the original proposal, instead stating the agency will give preference to studies with public data rather than exclude those that don’t.

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But scientists said the way the new proposal broadens the type of research that would be impacted by the rule as well as how EPA relies on research make the new version even more dangerous for public health than its predecessor.

“My first reading of it as it came up was they actually made it worse,” said Bernard Goldstein, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh.

The first version of the rule sparked major pushback--the 600,000 comments it sparked made it one of EPA’s most-commented on regulations ever. Its merits were even questioned by the agency’s independent science board. The new proposal is open for comment for 30 days, and EPA says it expects to issue its final rule later this year.

An EPA spokesperson told The Hill this week the agency needs to “ensure that the data and models underlying scientific studies that are pivotal to [a] regulatory action are available for review and reanalysis.”

But critics argue the transparency measures the Trump administration says are needed are just a red herring used to justify limiting scientific research for political purposes. 

EPA is "redoubling its efforts on science censorship and stacking the deck in favor of industry interests," the Natural Resource Defense Council argued after the rule came out.

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EPA doesn’t need studies’ underlying data, scientists say, because research is vetted by reviewing basic methods and statistics to see if the results support any conclusions that were drawn.

“EPA is saying, ‘Well even if that's a really good study, we’re not going to use it or we’re going to downgrade it,” said Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“That just doesn't make any sense when you’re trying to protect public health.”

The old version of the rule applied to just dose-response research that analyzes at what level chemicals and pollutants are toxic, but the new rule would diminish the value of any study that doesn’t make its data public. 

Experts say that could include a wide variety of research. 

Public health research may not just look specifically at the level at which a substance becomes dangerous but also map how proximity to industrial outputs or vehicles emissions is linked with various types of cancer and illness.

The policy could also hinder EPA from considering a wide variety of environmental research, like those documenting how pollutants spread and monitoring their impacts.

Such studies may be unable to make their data public. Researchers that do health-based studies on humans can’t publicly share peoples’ medical data without their permission. Environmental research might rely on confidential business information or data collected on private land that owners may not want exposed.

Some industry groups, however, might be willing to do so.

In an email to The Hill, the EPA said they were focused on getting the highest quality science and that publishing data will help studies withstand scrutiny.

But Goldstein said the agency will be limiting the number of studies it considers, ultimately weakening the pool of research from which it draws conclusions.

“We use consensus in the scientific community to come to a judgment,” he said. 

“The present EPA is consistently acting in a way that destroys consensus and moves toward confrontation, and this is just one example.”

The new version of the rule also expands its scope, with the data standards coming into play not just when weighing regulations but also as the agency develops its priorities. 

Rosenberg argued that will weaken the agency on a number of fronts.

“EPA tries to identify threats to public health going forward. So their job is not just to be reactive -- ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening, we better to do something about it’ -- but also to identify new challenges arising from a whole range of issues -- new industries, chemicals, pollutants, climate change -- all bringing threats to bear in the future,” he said.

 “EPA needs to try to get ahead of the curve.”