Energy & Environment

Court says EPA erred in blocking agency grantees from serving on its boards

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot bar recipients of its own grants from serving on agency boards, a New York district court ruled Wednesday. 

The court is the latest to side with scientists who were barred from serving on EPA boards by former Administrator Scott Pruitt, who said receiving funding from the agency would represent a conflict of interest. 

“This is an important victory for science and health,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued over the policy. “And it’s a repudiation of EPA’s effort to stifle the voices of independent scientists.”

The decision from U.S. District Judge Denise Cote vacates the policy.  

“The EPA’s deficiencies in instituting the directive were serious,” Cote wrote in a decision, noting “the EPA had failed to articulate any reason for changing its longstanding practice of permitting EPA grant recipients to serve on EPA advisory committees.”

The decision follows another from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals last month that likewise found the agency erred in trying to block its grantees from serving on EPA boards.

In that case, the judges sided with the Union of Concerned Scientists, writing that the law “clearly requires agency heads at least to consider whether new restraints on committee membership might inappropriately enhance special interest influence and to eschew such restraints when they do so.”

A spokeswoman for the EPA said the agency is reviewing the decision.

“We continue to litigate this issue in several courts and believe that the policy is a proper exercise of the administrator’s discretion to appoint board members that will provide the best possible service to the agency,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Woods said in a statement to The Hill. 

Critics say the policy skewed the types of appointees who could serve on boards, cutting out academics while industry-backed scientists were still able to serve — an argument later confirmed in a July report from the Government Accountability Office reviewing Pruitt’s policy. 

The report also found EPA did not follow the process for selecting the “best qualified and most appropriate candidates” for two committees that advise on environmental regulations and also “did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists said many of the researchers appointed to boards after Pruitt’s memo have substantial conflicts of interest.

“When you get rid of the very scientists that EPA has decided do the most promising and relevant research, you’re going to skew those committees markedly, and that’s what’s happened,” said Michael Halpern with the Union of Concerned Scientists when the group won its case in March. 

“We’ve seen a significant increase in representation on these committees by scientists who work for industries with significant conflicts of interest, reducing the independence of these committees.”

Tags Science Advisory Board Scott Pruitt Union of Concerned Scientists

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